In 16th-century Italy, where goodness and beauty are believed to go hand in hand, blemishes on the skin are seen as physical manifestations of the state of one’s soul. So when Flavia is born with a lurid birthmark across her face, the girl is viewed as an object of horror. After years of rejection, on the eve of her sister’s wedding Flavia snaps and does something so terrible that she is banished to a convent.
Here her path crosses with Ghostanza, a woman whose otherworldly beauty inspires reverence in women and men alike. She claims Flavia as her ornatrix (a lady’s maid), schooling her in the art of Renaissance-era beauty regimens and cosmetics. However, Ghostanza’s tutelage goes much deeper, teaching Flavia that physical perfection carries a hefty price.
By drawing sly parallels between Flavia’s world and our own, debut novelist Kate Howard demonstrates that unattainable beauty standards are hardly new. But Howard’s true genius lies in her skillful interweaving of themes of beauty, self-acceptance and artifice versus authenticity into an immersive story. The meticulous research and rich world-building place Howard alongside masters of the genre like Sarah Dunant and Tracy Chevalier (though Howard isn’t afraid to take readers down more ominous paths). If the idea of The Picture of Dorian Gray with feminist leanings gives you a thrill, then The Ornatrix is for you.