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Mostly Fiction: "Cecilia is highly recommended, especially to those who look for and cherish novels about Imperial Rome, the early Christian church, and the mystical mind."

Date: May 9 2010

Saint Cecilia is listed in the Catholic Mass’ Commemoration of the Dead. Her feast day is easy to remember because it is the same day President Kennedy was assassinated: November 22. She is the patron saint of musicians and Church music because she is said to have sung as she was dying. According to hagiography, she was a Roman noble woman who converted to Christianity toward the end of the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.). An only child, she married a man, Valerian, who along with his brother preceded her in martyrdom for their mutually-held religion. Cecilia survived several attempted executions, but finally after lingering a few days, she, still young, passed into Church history. The verifiable information about Saint Cecilia’s life is quite sparse, and so a novelist has plenty of elbow room for embellishment. Linda Ferri’s Cecilia takes apt advantage of this opportunity for invention in the name of rounding out characters, time, and place.

This is a work of literary art that beautifully, poetically, expresses the insecurities, jealousies, astute observations, passions and changes that overcome this Roman girl both before and after her marriage. The novel follows traditional history by making Cecilia an only child for the very likely reason that other children had been born to her parents but had died either in childbirth or by the time they were five years old. Cecilia’s mother, Lucilla, suffers terrible grief at the loss of all her babies except Cecilia, and even an understanding, good husband and one child to love aren’t enough; she becomes an acolyte of Isis and spends her days and many nights participating in the elaborate feminine rituals in the goddess’ temple. From her, then, it would seem that Cecilia inherits a family trait for religious zealotry.

Her father, Paulus, is a deeply conscientious and sensitive man who is derailed from the healing arts into public office, as the Prefect of the Annona. And, for a time, as he admits at one point to his daughter, he allowed an ambition to rise higher make him into a liar, flatterer and betrayer. Yet, he has the introspective mettle to recognize that political ambitions cannot allow him to be true to himself or to help his ailing, obsessive, and perpetually mourning wife. From him, Cecilia has inherited an intellectual and and philosophical spark. Both her parents have contributed much to the type of person she becomes, yet, in Ferri’s version, neither of them will share her conversion (whether they did in reality is disputed by Church historians; some do believe that Cecilia adopted Christianity in great part because her parents were already believers).

Where Ferri’s tale most noticeably diverges from accepted tradition concerns Valerian. In Cecilia, the young girl who earlier begged her father to postpone arranged nuptials is eager for marriage once she sees this handsome young nobleman. But the two grow apart as he increasingly tends to political and business interests, and she sees in him a hard and avaricious heart growing colder toward her and others. This Valerian does not become a Christian. This Valerian wants nothing to do with a wife who would align herself with a foreign sect, give alms to the poor and worship Christ rather than the Roman pantheon of gods. Since Ferri presented Cecilia’s father (about whom so little is known) quite favorably, I wonder why she chose to change Valerian. If there was one thing about the book that disappointed me it was not being able to read about Cecilia and Valerian sharing the same dangerous faith.

However, perhaps Ferri thought she could make a stronger literary character of Cecilia if she was the only one in her family and circle of acquaintances who did convert. Yet, interestingly (and, actually, somewhat to my relief), the author also veered away from ending the book with a lurid description of how Cecilia supposedly perished. Instead, Ferri offers an alternative ending, or at least a delay of the Roman woman’s fate, by having Cecilia pray, “Lord, we must trust you with humility, accept your miracles: the dream you gave my father about my lifeless body, life that I wanted and that you wished to give me again.”

But perhaps it is we, the readers, who are being led down a merciful garden path when she adds, “Paradise is the lost garden. It is the garden.” Cecilia is a mystic, someone who has visions and who often dreams. She invites, no, challenges us to see where the line between reality and fantasy really lies. Not to mention that Cecilia, who lost many loved ones in her short life, seeks hope in the promise of eternal life (one of the reasons she is drawn to the Christians). Why shouldn’t her story read as though her life had continued, even if it hadn’t?

Cecilia is a saint from the beginning centuries of Christianity, but she, as with all who are canonized, was once a flawed flesh-and-blood person. She lived in a society where those who followed Christ were considered “atheists,” where those who would not renounce this new faith were tortured to death. In Ferri’s novel, newly-baptized Cecilia confesses her feelings of unworthiness. “Later I confided to Alexander that my faith is weak, that I was unable to speak to Jesus, and that I didn’t even have the power to make myself heard by my best friend.” Although Cecilia’s flash-present, flash-back structure does leave a few holes and can be confusing if the reader isn’t alert, it provides a fascinating look into the fragile but determined psyche of a young woman who first sought spiritual and soul fulfillment in her own Roman gods. But when something frightening happens, she is awakened as never before. She feels as though”…every nerve, every drop of blood brought to life by all that light — I a quivering little flame that rose, above the roof, toward the sky.”

This novel renders for the reader a portrait of love burning in a girl who searches for a way to let it shine its brightest. Her mother looked to religious rites to quench her sorrows, but Cecilia embraced a different God to release the light inside.

Cecilia is highly recommended, especially to those who look for and cherish novels about Imperial Rome, the early Christian church, and the mystical mind.

By Kirstin Merrihew

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