The Last Song by Eva Wiseman
Published April 2012 by Tundra Books
Spain had been one of the world’s most tolerant societies for eight hundred years, but that way of life was wiped out by the Inquisition. Isabel’s family feels safe from the terrors, torture, and burnings. After all, her father is a respected physician in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Isabel was raised as a Catholic and doesn’t know that her family’s Jewish roots may be a death sentence. When her father is arrested by Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, she makes a desperate plan to save his life – and her own.
Once again, master storyteller Eva Wiseman brings history to life in this riveting and tragic novel. [source]
I was disappointed in this book – but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. Isabel, our protagonist, has a happy life as the only child of affectionate parents. Unfortunately, Isabel, her parents, and the other characters lack depth and emotional continuity. Her parents behave irrationally and erratically; they seem to have no internal life or desires of their own beyond what is necessary to drive the plot and Isabel’s development. Even the minor characters with whom Isabel spends significant time remain cardboard cutouts. Isabel’s loathsome fiance is so repulsively evil, lustful, and determined to show her who is master that the threat of marrying him loses its force; he is too entirely horrid to be a viable fate. (Insta-hate.) The novel’s other boy is just as inexplicably drawn to Isabel as she is to him, despite their class and apparent religious differences; this boy has no faults but repeatedly risks limb (and later, life) to do Isabel’s bidding. (Insta-love.) A viciously anti-Semitic servant does an abrupt about-face, and the loyal Muslim slave does what all loyal slaves do, i.e justify his masters by refusing to leave them even for freedom. The various characters who appeared briefly were uniformly predictable – townspeople were untrustworthy and greedy; Jews were good and entirely free of squabbles; even the choices of Brianda’s parents did not surprise.
There were a few plot points that severely tested this reader’s suspension of disbelief. The quandary of being New Christians was passed over lightly, for one. If Isabel’s parents are faithful Jews, as they turn out to be, then their failure to raise their daughter as such stretches the bounds of credibility. Isabel’s easy acceptance of her heritage and nearly-overnight shift in religion was hard to swallow.
What was pleasing, even impressive, was the incorporation of two period Spanish songs* and the description of customs regarding engagement. (I will assume, until informed otherwise, that this is historically accurate.) The casual incorporation of devotion to the Virgin Mary was also neatly done. In the secular west it is often difficult to comprehend how fully the church and Christian belief was part of day-to-day lives, personal as well as communal, and one scene in particular illuminates this well. The friendship between Isabel and Brianda – and their differences, particularly on Brianda’s treatment of a slave girl – was promising; I wish there could have been more of this.
* Or maybe I was just thrilled because I knew one of them. But still, using music from the era the story is set? Awesome!