Review: I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons (2022)

Blurb

Listen to my history. My adventures are worth hearing. I have lived many lifetimes and been loved by emperors, kings and thieves. I have survived kidnap and assault. Revolution and two world wars. But this is also a love story. And the story of what we will do for those we love.

In Leonardo da Vinci’s studio, bursting with genius imagination, towering commissions and needling patrons, as well as discontented muses, friends and rivals, sits the painting of the Mona Lisa. For five hundred tumultuous years, amid a whirlwind of power, money, intrigue, the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo is sought after and stolen.

Over the centuries, few could hear her voice, but now she is ready to tell her own story, in her own words – a tale of rivalry, murder and heartbreak. Weaving through the years, she takes us from the dazzling world of Florentine studios to the French courts at Fontainebleau and Versailles, and into the Twentieth Century.

I, Mona Lisa is a deliciously vivid, compulsive and illuminating story about the lost and forgotten women throughout history.

Review

Huge thanks to Najma Finlay at Hutchinson Heinemann for sending me an advanced copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

I, Mona Lisa has such a bold premise. This is not the story behind the painting: this is the painting’s story. I can think of nothing better than when a talented writer takes an outlandish idea (a talking painting!) and runs with it so successfully – it makes my heart sing at the myriad possibilities of fiction. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief, but Solomons makes this effortlessly easy. Mona Lisa’s voice is strong, fierce, weathered by the centuries, softened by the memory of her beloved creator, and hardened by the things she wishes she hadn’t seen. Rarely have I felt so passionate about a narrator who isn’t technically human.

I devoured this novel, reading it in greedy gulps late into the night. Solomons takes us on an intricately structured journey from da Vinci’s studios to French palaces and, finally, to twentieth century Paris, but we move back and forth, getting each strand of the story in tantalising pieces which, by the end, fit together to make a beautiful mosaic of the ‘life’ of this extraordinary protagonist. But it is not only Mona Lisa and Leonardo who make this story come to life. Every single character is drawn with such vivid realism, such bright colours, that I could see it all before my eyes: scowling Michelangelo, the fragile, wounded Lisa del Giocondo, Francis the arrogant, adolescent French king, and later, others whom I won’t mention as I don’t want to spoil anything!

This story feels like a full immersion in European history, and yet it is told with a light touch. The detail is wonderful, never too much, always perfectly pitched to allow the reader to see the scenes unfolding as if before their eyes – we become observers just like Mona Lisa herself. The are moments of drama, of quiet tenderness, of humour – I was sad to reach the end, as I could have kept on reading forever. It may feel like a flippant pun to describe I, Mona Lisa as a masterpiece, but I mean it – I adored this book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It has set the standard for 2022 books for me, and it will take some beating.

I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on 10th February 2022 and is available to pre-order here.

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