Purpose of this blogpost though is to talk about books like these, which some people call docu-fiction. All novels are based in time - be it the past, present, or the future, but there are some that are more steeply based in the background of a given era and use lots of historical figures, personalities, events, and landmarks as part of the story. I find that I really enjoy this genre maybe because you stand to gain a history lesson and have a cultural experience of the types you get when you visit a museum, in addition to reading a good story and enjoying good literature!
The book reminded me of two novels that I have read in the past. One was a great love story, A Venetian Affair Aby Andrea Di Robilant, which I read completely and enjoyed a lot in 2003. The story, 'drawn in part from a cache of letters discovered by the author's father in his ancestral palazzo on the Grand Canal' had me gripped not only for the love-story aspect of it but also gave me a introductory historical perspective of life in Venice in the 15th century. The other was another good novel, The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, which I had read half-way but never completed, also in 2003. ('Dunant masterfully blends fact and fiction, seamlessly interweaving Florentine history with the coming-of-age story of a spirited 14-year-old girl. As Florence struggles in Savonarola's grip, a serial killer stalks the streets, the French invaders creep closer, and young Alessandra Cecchi must surrender her 'childish' dreams and navigate her way into womanhood.' - italized sentences are from the amazon.com blurb for the book.) The novel is based in 15th century Florence and gave me a historical lesson on the Italian Renaissance, with an introductory lesson about the Medici family and Girolamo Savonarola's tyrrany and enlightened me to the origin of the term 'Bonfire of the Vanities' ('In 1497 he and his followers carried out the famous Bonfire of the Vanities. They sent boys from door to door collecting items associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, gaming tables, fine dresses, and the works of immoral poets, and burnt them all in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. Fine Florentine Renaissance artwork was lost in Savonarola's notorious bonfires, including paintings by Sandro Botticelli thrown on the pyres by the artist himself.')
Sarah Dunant herself has a few other books in this genre (very different, than something I just ran into researching this blogpost called 'historical fantasy' ), which are set in the Rennaissance period* but the other similar novel that I had read half-way but never finished, is Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is quite popular, thanks to the movie adaptation, with the same name - although I never realized when the movie came and went - saw it directly at the video store one day! Couple other recent books that I saw at the public library yesterday which, I think belong to this category, are Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex and The Constant Princess by Phillipa Gregory, which is the story of Catalina, princess of Wales & Spain and the youngest daughter to the Spanish monarchs and crusaders King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who was promised to the English Prince Arthur when she was three.
At the public library, I also ran into two other books that are in a related genre - fictionalized-dear-diaries by famous historical figures (deemed 'fictional popcorn, rather tasty, but neither filling or nutritious' by an amazon.com reviewer of the Helen of Troy book mentioned below) - but written by someone today, fictionalizing what the famous person could have possibly written. In the first one, The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson , a historian turned first-time fiction writer, fictionalizes a diary that the ill-fated queen of France may have left behind - recounting her life story in a 'spirited blend of fact and fiction' - right from her 'childhood as Austrian Archduchess Maria Antonia, her marriage to feckless Frenchman Louis XVI and her naïve pangs of conscience about hungry peasants clamoring at the gates of Versailles.' (Again, italicized words are from amazon.com blurb for the book. Also, for a more true-to-history, non-fictional rendering of her life, read Marie Antoinette : The Last Queen of France by Evelyn Lever; Marie Antoinette : The Journey by Antonia Fraser, and To the Scaffold : The Life of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson.) The second is The Memoirs of Helen of Troy by Amanda Elyot (pseudonym of actress-novelist Leslie Carroll) , in which 'Helen, in middle age, writes her autobiography for her daughter, Hermione, revealing how she became the notorious Helen of Troy.' Again, since it is fictionalized but still steeped in history ('one foot in history, one in the realm of imagination', you could say) ', these books should make for interesting reads.
The other related and interesting genre that spurs flights of imagination are the alternative history books that take you on what-if scenarios, wondering how the future of the world would have changed if a certain thing in history had not happened and something else, which was a likely outcome at the time, would have happened instead. Interesting again...but though I have heard of these books, I have not read any and so cannot really blog about it much here...
And then there is the whole world of parallel universes, that people explore under the aegis of science-fiction. I am NO fan of science-fiction (never got into it!) although I love reading scientific books on physics - Cosmology, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, lives of famous physicists (beyond Einstien, Bohr & Feynman!) etc. - although some would argue that a lot of the latest cutting-edge theories (all these links are to do with String theory, which Brian Greene, author of The Fabric of the Cosmos : Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, tried to explain for the layman in his really good PBS-Nova documentary, The Elegant Universe - based on his book by the same name) in the scientific realm do sometimes sound like sci-fi :)
* Somehow, for me books to do with Italy or Spain in the 15th to 17th century make for more interesting reading than fiction dealing with (as against fiction from that era) 17th century Britain. (Hah.. add England/France to the list of eras of interest... though its from 5 centuries before the prudes took over in England :). In looking up these links, I read aboutthe story of Queen Isabella .. "Isabella of France (1295?–1358) married the bisexual Edward II of England as a 12-year-old, lived with him for 17 years, bore him four children, fled to France in fear of his powerful favorite, returned with her lover, Roger Mortimer, to lead a rebellion and place her son on the throne and eventually saw Mortimer executed as her son asserted his power. " Now thats a story!! :)