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There are only a few books I remember very clearly from elementary school. The Westing Game, for one (which remains my favorite book to this day and which I have owned three copies of because I lose them, lend them, or both), all of the Babysitters Club books, A Wrinkle in Time, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The last is a book I don't clearly remember the content of, but I remember loving it in a way that I can't fully explain. It's made me look for more of E.L. Konigsburg's books before but never actually buy any because nothing tickled my fancy.

The Second Mrs. Gioconda, however, caught my eye. It promises to tell the secret of the Mona Lisa: who she was, why DaVinci painted her, and what inspired him. The back promises a historically-based novel about one of Leonardo's apprentices, Salai, the relationship they share with a duchess named Beatrice, and the real answer to why the Mona Lisa was ever painted to begin with. And the start of the book is exactly that: Salai, a young thief without much of a future, becomes accidentally employed by Leonardo DaVinci, the greatest artist of their time. Employed by the Duke of Milan at the time, Leonardo introduces Salai to art, the court, and to the duke's young wife, Beatrice, who is proud to be plain-faced but full of spirit.

And that's about as good as the book gets, honestly.

I can't really explain why I didn't like it except to say that I feel like Konigsburg didn't know what book she was writing. The "mystery" of the Mona Lisa is never explained or even really fleshed out; in fact, the famous painting doesn't get its first mention until the last three pages. She attempts, in those pages, to draw this long, complex comparison of the woman who became the Mona Lisa to Beatrice, but it feels rushed and entirely out of place. All of a sudden, WHAM!, the explanation smacks the reader in the face. There's no subtlety, there's no craft, it just...is. Salai's interior monologue basically says And Leonardo will paint this woman because she will remind him of Beatrice, the end. It felt completely thrown together

My other challenge -- and the one, honestly, that upset me more -- was the haphazard way she threw in details that I find it hard to believe ever existed. She admits that Leonardo didn't think much of the real Salai. In his notebooks, he described him as a thief, a liar, and a mule-head. It's clear that he had some fondness because, in the end, Salai was mentioned in his will, but the book raises Salai up as both a liar and a wonderful human being. I felt like he was completely inconsistent, because even though he was constantly doing small, immoral things, he was also the lens through which we were meant to see the wonder of this world, and it contrasted severely. More than that, Konigsburg villianized DaVinci. A lot. In the last chapters, he's described as a petty man with low self esteem and it's insinuated that Salai is becoming the person who decides what he will do, when, and with who. I find it hard to believe that one of the greatest minds of the human race would be manipulated left and right by a twenty-year-old. I also just find it hard to believe that anything in this book happened the way it was described.

I was really disappointed. I thought this would be mysterious and fun. Instead, it was boring, bland, and unrealistic. The only boon was that it was short, but that really didn't win it enough points for me to find it at all worth while.

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buecherwald
the forest-dweller

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