Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Mapmaker's Daughter by Laurel Corona

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 14, 2014

A sweeping story of 1492 Spain, exploring how what we know about the world shapes our map of life Valencia, 1492. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issue an order expelling all Jews who refuse to convert to Christianity. Amalia Cresques, daughter of a Jewish mapmaker whose services were so valuable that his faith had been ignored, can no longer evade the throne. She must leave her beloved atlas, her house, her country, forever. As Amalia remembers her past, living as a converso, hiding her faith, she must decide whether to risk the wrath of the Inquisition or relinquish what's left of her true life. A mesmerizing saga about faith, family and Jewish identity.

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I first noticed Laurel Corona's The Mapmaker's Daughter when it was added to the Historical Fiction 2014 book list on Goodreads. The buzz caught my attention and by the time the title appeared on Netgalley, I was positively giddy at the prospect of reading it. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was short lived.

Corona relies heavily on macro level ideas and motifs, offering her audience very little substance with which to relate on the micro level of the narrative. Concept heavy and exceedingly complex, I found Amalia's journey impossible to get into and while I greatly appreciated the author's illustration of faith, I felt her thesis overwhelmed her fiction and dragged the pacing to a pitifully painful crawl.

Focal character Amalia Cresques lacks both purpose and dimension. Ever a spectator, she doesn't actually do much of anything over the course of the story. Honestly, she spends ninety-five percent of the narrative sitting on her hands, a mere witness to the upheaval caused by the political and religious conflict of the period. Had she been properly developed, an active participant, or portrayed as a confidant and loyal friend to one of the key players, I might feel differently, but as it stands I felt her position as casual acquaintance of the noteworthy and powerful made exceedingly dull reading.

While I'm on the subject, I was incredibly disappointed with Corona's treatment of the historical cast. Individuals like Jehuda CresquesHenry the NavigatorIsabella of PortugalMuhammed IXIsabella I of Castile, and Isaac Abrabanel. Corona doesn't explore their personalities or give them a function in Amalia's story. Treating them as stock characters, they wander in and out of the narrative at random, flat impersonations with intangible identities, objectives and motivations.

A slow and impersonal read, The Mapmaker's Daughter a chore to get through. Thematically interesting, but otherwise unremarkable. 

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Jews may take no more from Spain than they can carry. Take something useful, my daughter has told me. A little more clothing, or a piece of leather for new soles for our shoes. Sell the atlas and sew into my hem the few coins it will bring. I see the pain behind her resolve. The book is as much a part of her as it is of me, no easier to leave behind than an arm or a leg.
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