One of my favorite things is when a book calls out to me from its shelf, beckoning me to pick it up and bring it home. This is how I discovered Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena at my local bookstore, amongst the rows of fiction novels. Its cover caught my eye first: a medieval-looking woman against a dome of star-painted art, looking down at the words she’s writing into a book. The novel’s summary sealed the deal, and I went home and started reading The Scribe of Siena that very night.
The novel focuses on Beatrice Trovato, a successful neurosurgeon living in New York City. When her dear brother unexpectedly dies, she travels to his home in Siena to continue some ground-breaking research he was conducting. Beatrice, already fluent in Italian, fits in well with her new home and neighbors, and although she’s grieving the loss of her brother, she’s also intrigued by the research she’s been instructed to pick up. This includes the journal of a particular 14th-century fresco artist named Gabriele Accorsi. Then one day she discovers something truly impossible: In a museum, she sees a painting by the very same Gabriele Accorsi, but in the image she sees her own face staring back at her.
Suddenly, Beatrice blacks out for a just a moment, only to awaken in the same place… but centuries earlier. She’s still in Siena, but it’s now July 6, 1347. She’s disoriented, but she has to blend in quickly if she wants to survive. Through a series of events, Beatrice ends up working as a scribe at the Ospedale, living with nuns and working by day. This is how she finally meets Gabriele, who’s been commissioned to paint a fresco on the outside of the Ospedale. The two slowly develop a close bond, but danger lurks.
First, the Medici family is on a vengeful mission that will put both Gabriele and Beatrice at risk of death. And that’s not the only certain death awaiting them: Beatrice knows her history, and she’s all too aware that the plague – the Black Death – will be arriving in Italy in a matter of months. She needs to figure out how to get back to the 21st century before she dies of the disease. But as she grows close to her 14th century friends, she wonders how she can save them, too. She’s a doctor – could her modern knowledge prevent the plague entirely? Would she be able to save herself and those around her?
From here, The Scribe of Siena is a race against time and a race against murderous enemies. Uncontrolled time travel aside, Beatrice doesn’t have magical abilities, though they may seem that way to her 1300s compatriots. She struggles to fit in with the new era she’s inhabiting, but she also longs to speak the truth to someone, even if they think she’s crazy. Beatrice is learning invaluable information that would make or break her brother’s research, making her long to return to the 2000s and complete it. But, with new friends and maybe love, would she rather stay in the 1300s instead?
The Scribe of Siena is a stunning, perfect novel. It’s smart, unexpected, sweet, fast-paced, and contemplative. It’s fun and charming, making you want to keep reading, but also never wanting the story to end. Melodie Winawer is an incredible writer with a strong command of her prose, and this debut promises more where that came from.
It caught me by surprise, but I’m so glad it did. The Scribe of Siena may be my favorite book of 2017, and it’s one I’ll be recommending to everyone I know. It’s a magical journey, a historical fantasy that will capture your heart and offer plenty of joy when you inevitably re-read it in the future.