Book Review: The Girl from Oto
by Amy Maroney
When I was newly married, my husband and I participated in an annual “progressive dinner” (aka Safari dinner in the UK). The idea of these dinners was to progress from one host’s home to the next, eating one course at each residence. It was a great way to get to know people better, try a different tasty dish in each location, and find some satisfaction (without starving) as you “progressed” along over the course of your meal.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but this is the first thing I thought of when trying to come up with an easy way to describe my interaction with The Girl from Oto. There are elements of mystery in the book, but the mystery aspect does not overpower the telling of the story, and just enough tension is relieved in its telling to make a satisfying “progression” as one tidbit is offered up in mystery then solved. It does leave a few little satisfying threads for the end just to tie everything up.
Zari (the present) is an art historian who has traveled to Europe to research a late medieval painter. As her story unfolds, Zari discovers, then follows, a bread crumb trail of evidence indicating that the painting she has come to research might not be what she originally thought it was. As she continues her research, she slowly unravels this mystery bit by bit.
Simultaneously the story flip-flops back in time to Mira, a girl “secreted away” from her baronial family home by her mother who lives under the daily brutal harshness of her husband the baron. Mira is raised in a nunnery (and in ignorance of who she is), learning much about the world in relative freedom and safety. The unfolding of her story leaves the bread crumbs that our future art historian finds.
The beauty of this book is that the story of each of these two women is unrolled at the perfect speed so that neither story gives too much away too soon. The reader is simply carried along at the perfect pace, with just enough satisfaction doled out at just the right time to keep things interesting. I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t know exactly how or when and was surprised multiple times over the course of the story.
Another thing that stands out for me with good books, and I recognize this is a subjective thing, is the use of detail. I’m a detail-loving girl, and there is a feast in this book. On one hand, there is the kind of detailed description that allowed me to taste, see, smell, and imagine myself next to the characters as they journeyed through the story. These are the tangible details that create the “movie” in my head as a reader.
I was also impressed by the way Maroney went about describing aspects of the crafts of the day, and of daily life in that time and place. Painting methods, for instance — what was involved in the making of the various pigments, preparing the brushes, “canvases”, etc. I never knew I wanted to know so much about the sheep market in those mountains before reading this book! The story was never weighed down by these details, but enough was given to give a fascinating glimpse at all of it. I knew little about life in the Pyrenees in any era, never mind this century, but Maroney made the history and culture very accessible.
A friend of mine, Ken John, happened to be reading the book simultaneously, and his summary of the book seems an apt way to end my review: “Amy has a masterful command of writing. Her descriptive passages of people, places, weather, flora and fauna, the stink of the post plague 15th century, but also its wonders; the start of the Renaissance; the human spirit, has me captivated.”
I very much look forward to Ms. Maroney’s next book, Mira’s Way!
Purchase The Girl from Oto on Amazon.