Brief Reviews

Susan Fish – Renaissance [Review]

RenaissanceA Multi-Faceted Renaissance

A Review of

Renaissance: A Novel
Susan Fish

Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2023
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Reviewed by J. Brent Bill

     Renaissance

  • the culture and style of art and architecture
    developed during the Renaissance.
  • a revival of or renewed interest in something.


Elizabeth Fane, who is soon to be fifty years old, is on a plane to Italy. Her plan, such as it is, is to stay in a Florentine convent, tend to olive trees, and experience this city whose name is rooted in the Latin word, “to blossom.” That’s how Susan Fish’s novel opens. We soon learn that she is traveling by herself, without her husband, adult sons, and a recently left job all behind her in Canada.

She is also carrying a heavy weight. Something has happened that has set her adrift from the person she imagined she was and from the family and life that grounded her. We don’t find out what that is until a good while into her story. The question arises, is she running to Italy, running away from Canada, or some combination of both? Though she’s heading for a convent, she’s not on a pilgrimage. At least not one that she’s aware of.

Arriving at the convent, she uneasily settles into a place where there are few other English speakers, save for Sister Salvia among the sisters, and fellow guests Honey and Cecy. Her time in Florence is populated mostly with women, except the tall older monk Niccolò who teaches her the art of pruning and caring for ancient olive trees, and the brothers singing at the Vespers Mass in a church high on a Florentine hill, and the thoughts of the men in her family back in Canada. Her room is dominated by a large painting of the Virgin Mary. Liz talks to her, but often seems not to get any answer. 

On her travels to the convent and around Florence’s museums and cathedrals, she witnesses sex workers by the roadside and a cigarette smoking bitter-looking old woman. We get to go with her on her journey of wonder at the art and architecture of this birthplace of the Italian renaissance as it moves from late winter into early spring. On one of her sojourns to the city, she goes on a tour with an exotic looking guide that turns out to be a grade three school classmate from her youth in Canada. Elora appealed to Liz back then for her exotic nature, which is still quite present. Elora also has a friend and flatmate Patrezia. Liz pals around with them some. In addition to experiencing the fine art of Florence, she also goes with the sisters on an hour-long bus trip to Pinocchio Park. Also, for Liz, Pinocchio is not the only liar she will encounter in Italy. She is betrayed by someone. A betrayal she feels mirrors, though never explicitly says so, that which mysteriously haunts her. When that happens, the renaissance that Liz has been undergoing, though she hasn’t really noticed it seems, begins to blossom. As does she. Which makes the pruning of olive trees such a perfect metaphor for her own experience.

To say much more, would rob the reader of a delightful reading experience. Besides well-drawn and interesting characters and plot, the writing is as luminescent as Florentine Renaissance artist Filippo Lippi’s Adoration in the Forest from 1459. Renaissance is a lovely read and a portrait of Elizabeth Fane’s renaissance. 

 

J. Brent Bill

J. Brent Bill is a writer, writing teacher, photographer, and Quaker minister. He lives on Ploughshares Farm in rural Indiana which has been converted from production agriculture to a tall grass prairie and woods filled with native trees. His newest book Amity: Short Stories from the Heartland was released in December 2023. Find him online at: BrentBill.com

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