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Secrecy Paperback – April 22, 2014

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; Reprint edition (April 22, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590516850
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590516850
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #321,622 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, April 2014: “He came on a November day, a cold wind blowing, the fields soaked with rain.” With that opening line we’re introduced to Zummo, the mysterious Sicilian sculptor whose specialty is dioramas of death: wax figures of dead and dying plague victims, with rats tugging at their entrails. “I’m interested in corruption and decay,” he explains. Set in Florence, in the late 1600s, Zummo is commissioned by the Grand Duke to create a wax sculpture of a woman to replace his wife, the Duchess (who hates her husband and has fled the royal manor). British writer Rupert Thomson’s characters are fantastically comical or creepy or weird: an imperious nobleman who rolls “syllables on his tongue like pieces of soft fruit”; a menacing black-robed priest (“slippery, reptilian”); a beautiful apothecary girl of suspicious lineage; a gossipy house boy with a missing ear named, of course, Earhole. Packed with enough lies, betrayals, jealousies, couplings, and secrets to rival, say, Congress, this is a rich and delicious book that reads more like a brainy mystery than “historical.” That’s not a dig at the historical bits. The recreation of life on the dangerous streets of Renaissance Florence is masterful. Says the sculptor (again, a line that could apply to Congress): “I’d never lived in a place where paranoia was so completely justifiable.” Maybe I’m easy to please, or I’m a sucker for micro-scenes like the royal librarian who walks away from a Jesuit scholar and a few monks, mutters “nest of vipers” and chomps into a hard-boiled egg. I’m also a sucker for Thomson’s language: palace floors are “voluptuous with dust,” an old woman smells of “famine breath,” a man’s privates are referred to as “Your root. Your yard. Your pego.” Famine in the countryside, an earthquake, love and death and disturbing works of art… I loved it all. --Neal Thompson

From Booklist

Florence is a dangerous place for freethinkers, lovers, and artists at the end of the seventeenth century. An atmosphere of repression has settled over the region, and people are held in check by religious figures in powerful places. Zummo the wax sculptor has been summoned there by the grand duke, Cosimo III, and after years of wandering, he is pleased with the pay and relative freedom the duke’s patronage affords. No stranger to scandal and conspiracy, though, he recognizes the dangers inherent in the duke’s secretive commission and in his own burgeoning love for the niece of the apothecary. As the domineering Dominican priest Stufa closes in, Zummo must find a way to release them all from the grip of Florence’s darkest powers. Though some anachronistic details occasionally interrupt the realism, Thomson brings Renaissance-era Florence to life with rich descriptions and scenic locales. Readers who have toured Florence will enjoy revisiting the sites in the mind’s eye, and historical fiction fans in general will relish the virtual trip brimming with mystery and intrigue. --Cortney Ophoff

Customer Reviews

I thought the story could have been more detailed which would have made it much better.
I thought there were too many different directions and the characters never came clearly into focus for me.
Caryl Karel
Similarly there seems no real point to Zummo's waxworks other than getting him a job in the court.
DJ Arboretum

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By DJ Arboretum on October 9, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed reading this book, the characters were interesting and the Florentine setting gave it an air of mystery. But I dont think the plot held together very well. The Grand Duke, an interesting character in love with his wayward wife never develops and his relationship with Zummo seems to stall as if the author forgot where he had intended to take things. Similarly there seems no real point to Zummo's waxworks other than getting him a job in the court. He could equally well have been a cobbler or wigmaker. The hidden wax baby mirrors Faustina's own hidden past but nothing more is made of it. In the end I got the feeling that the author had discovered so many interesting ideas when researching historical Italy that he included them regardless of whether they advanced the story.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Acorn on September 24, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Gaetano Giulio Zumbo (1656-1701) was known for wax sculptures that depicted miniature scenes of mortal decay (a popular religious theme at the time) as well as highly realistic wax renderings of human anatomy. He was born in Sicily but for a long period worked in Florence under the patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Zumbo is the central character in this novel which tells a story based on his time in Florence.

The short opening section is narrated by an old abbess, Marguerite-Louise, cousin of Louis XIV and once the wife of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. She bore her ex-husband two sons and a daughter but loathed him from the first time she set eyes on him. In late 1701, Zumbo comes to visit her in order to talk about a second daughter that she had, fathered by a groom in her employ. The abbess is shocked: she had always assumed that this child's existence was a secret known only to herself and her lover.

In the second section, which forms the bulk of the novel, Zumbo tells the story of how he came to Florence and the threats and rumours that drove him from his Sicilian home. While Zumbo works on his miniature scenes, the Duke asks him to carry out a secret commission, a life-sized naked woman made of wax. It is an odd request and one that Zumbo finds both a personal risk and an artistic challenge. Still, he cannot refuse his patron.

For most of the time Zumbo lives at an inn called the House of Shells. He forms a friendship with the widow who runs it, her small daughter, and a French jester named Cuif who spends almost all of his time in his room practising acrobatic routines. Zumbo also gets to know Pampolini, the morgue attendant who is able to supply bodies and body parts as models for Zumbo's works.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Julia Flyte TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 24, 2013
Format: Paperback
I enjoyed and disliked this book in almost equal parts. On the one hand, the language is beautiful, the characters are interesting and the setting (17th century Florence) seems meticulously researched. On the other hand, it has a creepiness about it which I found off-putting to read, the prologue gives away twists that would be better held until the book's ending and somehow I didn't get any sense of place. I learned a lot about Florence at that time, but I never felt like I was there.

The story is about Zummo, a wax sculptor who has come to Florence after a scandal forced him out of his native Sicily. The scandal is not explicitly described and there is some doubt over whether it was true or not. He comes to work for the Grand Duke of Florence, a complex character who was scorned by his wife and whose children have all gone off the rails. Florence is a dangerous place, both literally - with murders in dark alleys at night - but also in the sense that someone is always watching and is ready to have you arrested. When Zummo falls in love, he exposes both himself and his lover to danger.

As the title alludes, secrecy is everything. Zummo is secretive about his past, his techniques, his assignments and of course his relationship. Faustina, his lover, also has her own secrets. At one point she comments: "I've got more mystery in me than all these people put together". But in fact, almost every major character is hiding something.

So, an intriguing plot in a fascinating setting, but somehow it fell short for me of what it could have been.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Sarah Frost on September 26, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition

17/08 - I'm enjoying this but at the same time having a few problems with the fact that the situation in Florence isn't properly explained for someone who doesn't already know the history. I was a big fan of the tv series The Borgias, but that is about the extent of my knowledge of Italy prior to the twentieth century. In fact, I've just gained a much better understanding from reading another reviewer's explanation of the atmosphere in Florence at that time. I just wish there was some more background information about why a wax sculpture of nude female was a hanging offense and why Gaetano and Faustina can't be seen together. I don't think it should be up to the reader to do their own research on a subject that is so central to the story, it should be a given that all necessary information is included in the story itself. We shouldn't have to work so hard to understand the plot. To be continued...


18/08 - I found the ending better than I was expecting, but I was sad that Faustina died before she got the chance to see her mother or to live any kind of life with Mimmo and her daughter. I do think this could have been a better book, but it didn't quite reach it's potential. I wish Gaetano's life with his family, before moving to Florence, had been better explored, because the intimations made by Thomson about Gaetano's life were interesting and I wanted to read more.
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