I suppose I should know Artemisia Gentileschi, famous painter of Renaissance Rome, who, as a 17-year-old, was raped by her instructor—but sadly, I had not heard of her before reading this book. This verse novel feels like an #metoo story set in the early 17th century. It is raw and powerful. Too heavy-handed? Too much 21st c vocab in a 400 year-old-story? Not enough about her career as a painter? A few critics think so. But the purpose of this book is not to chronicle her life nor to offer a subtle message nor to strictly adhere to 17th c language, but rather to tell her story of speaking the truth. There are no good choices: stay silent, suffer shame and death by stoning? Speak out and risk the same? Artemisia finds her strength in the bedtime stories from her dead mother and from the stories of the biblical characters Judith and Susanna (both of whom became a focus of her paintings). At times, Artemisia’s words and thoughts might feel a bit too 21st century for a 17th century girl, such as when she thinks why, though, does it take/a mother, daughter/ sister/for men to take/a woman at her word? (237), but this is fiction for young adults—and the writing can be less subtle, less nuanced, for teens. They need a strong message, and frankly, I think McCullough handled it well. And so did this reviewer of the book in The New Yorker.
In the aftermath of the trial, Artemisia says, I will show you what a woman can do. And those words need to be heard by women of all ages, especially those who doubt themselves and those who feel pressured to silence their story. I loved the language, the message, the power, and the passion of this novel—as well as its historical significance and its use of verse format. I recommend this to teens, adults, and anyone in between. Thank you to Alana, my student who recommended this to me.