Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

This novel in  free verse tells the story of two daughters of a glass blower destined to marry the man the other loves. It is set in the 15th century Republic of Venice, on the Island of Murano and is based on a real historical person, Maria Barovier, who was one of the first women to open an enameling furnace .

Maria Barovier is the youngest daughter of Venetian glassblower, Angelo Barovier. Her father's family has molded glass on the Island of Murano since the 13th century when the Republic of Venice required all glassblowers to relocate to the island as a way to prevent fires and to protect the trade secrets of the glassblowers.

Angelo Barovier was preparing to leave Murano to study at the University of Padua when a terrible fire destroyed the family furnaces and killed most of the family. Angelo as well as a surviving brother, Giova, sought out work with other furnaces until they were able to restart their own business. Maria's father worked hard re-establishing his glassblowing business, training his two daughters, Giovanna and Maria. Maria's brothers were also a part of the family business; Paolo blew glass while Marino looked after the business.

The Barovier fornicas (furnaces) were the only ones to produce the cristallo, a clear crystal glass and this made her family renowned. But, someone who worked in the family business stole the secret and soon all the furnaces on Murano were making cristallo. A year later, Maria's father was dead from a heart attack. Now Maria's mother intends to marry her off to a wealthy nobleman to restore the family name and fortune as per her husband's will.

When the family's fortunes continue to fail, and Maria's brother Paolo spends his time pursuing a courtesan rather than blowing glass, they decide to take on a young gaffer (glassblower), Luca, who has no family name but whose work is exceptional.

 As suitors are brought before Maria and her mother, none seem suitable. In the meantime, Maria, who shows considerable talent as an artist begins visiting Luca and mixing batches for him. These visits lead her to see Luca in a different light, as an artist similar to herself and she begins to fall in love with him. But it seems that Luca does not feel the same towards Maria.

Eventually, Maria's mother settles on one man for her to marry, but she doesn't love him. Instead, her heart has turned towards another and towards the art of glassblowing. Complicating things even more, her suitor seems to have fallen for Giovanna. Can Maria find a way to be with the one she loves, or will she be required to sacrifice all for the sake of her family?

Stephanie Hemphill has chosen a little known subject for this short novel geared towards younger readers.The Barovias were renowned for their beautiful glass making in the 1400's. Maria and her brother Giovanni operated a Venetian glasshouse that produced some remarkable pieces. Hemphill takes the basic elements of the Barovier family history to create an interesting storyline while including numerous glassblowing terms throughout her novel that capture the life of the artisans on Murano. The author provides her readers with a glossary at the back so they can understand what all the terms mean.

The two sisters in Sisters of Glass, Giovanna and Maria, are strong women who are torn between following tradition and their hearts. In this novel they find a way to do both, although realistically in 15th century Venice, that would have been unlikely.

Although this novel works well written in verse, because the subject is so unique and interesting, it would have been exceptional if it was done as a full novel in prose. Still as a short historical novel, it is well written, laced with themes of identity, familial duty and responsibility, with a fulfilling conclusion.

Book Details:
Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill
Knopf     2012
170 pp.

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