Vividly set amongst the winding cobblestone streets and shadowy canals of 18th century Venice, Chicago writer Julia Fine’s Maddalena and the Dark is a wonderfully moody, gothic fairy tale about teenage girls filled with desires they don’t yet understand.
The novel begins with a marriage, but not the usual sort: the Venetian nobles, Maddalena and her oldest brother among them, attend the annual Festa della Sensa during which the Doge of Venice throws a gold wedding band into the Adriatic, marrying the whole city to the sea. Soon enough, Maddalena will make her own promises to a dark and dangerous power hiding within those waters. But the idea of marriage is to her “a fairy tale, not real life but the dangling promise of a life, as lovely and impossible as heaven.” A scandal has threatened the family’s reputation, and since this is 1717, her father and brothers naturally determine that the only way to preserve their social standing is by sending Maddalena to an orphanage to acquire some musical talents and, in the process, a respectable suitor.
To be fair, it’s not any orphanage. The all-girls music school Ospedale della Pietà may have been home to abandoned and illegitimate girls in Venice, but it was also a renowned music school with none other than Antonio Vivaldi as its resident composer, violin teacher, and orchestra conductor. (The historical research Fine conducted for this book sings on every page.)
At the Pietà, Maddalena meets Luisa, who wants nothing more than to be the star violinist of Vivaldi’s orchestra. The girls form a friendship that quickly intensifies: soon the girls are sneaking into one another’s beds at night to share warmth and secrets and desires they dare not speak aloud by day. “If someone catches them together, they’ll be punished,” Maddalena knows, but she “has never felt more herself, and marvels at the ease with which she lets Luisa know her.” She decides to take Luisa under her wing, to bring her into the dark pact she has formed with the mysterious being in the sea, but their wishes come with consequences that will turn their worlds upside down.
Without giving too much away, I loved the speculative elements of this novel. Fine never distracts from the reality of the girls’ lives and the seriousness of their desires, but manifests the dark power lurking beyond the Venetian canals in compelling and sometimes surprising ways—including a recurring figure that might be a Manic Pixie Dream Gondolier or a period-appropriate version of Charon, the psychopomp in Greek mythology who ferries souls across the River Styx. Either way, it works.
There is a beautiful exploration in this novel of the deep and complicated love that can form between young women, and how painful it can be when that love is tested, or infringed upon by others. Maddalena becomes obsessed with Luisa, jealous of the attention Vivaldi bestows when she becomes his favored protégé, enraged at discovering the identity of Luisa’s first crush, despite the fact that her own marriage to a young (or old) nobleman is inevitable. The pure, once unadulterated love Maddalena felt for her friend takes on a menacing and possessive quality: “she wants to take Luisa’s mouth to her own mouth, to straddle her and have her and wear her skin around Luisa’s body, Luisa protected and safe inside Maddalena.” No one else can have her.
It should come as no surprise that there is no “happily ever after” at the end of Maddalena and the Dark. But like so many treasured fairy tales, readers will find that the most disturbing moments of this story reflect a glimmer of who we might be, if we reject our darkest impulses and step into the light.
Maddalena and the Dark was published by Flatiron Books on June 13, and is available at your local independent bookstore or the publisher’s website.
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