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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sisters of Glass, written by Stephanie Hemphill. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. 2012. $18.99 ages 12 and up

"Learning To Be A Lady
is like learning
to live within a shell,
to be a crustacean encased
in a small white
uncomfortable world.
You hear the ocean
whirl about you
but feel not the wet
not ride the wave..."

The idea for this lovely new book from Stephanie Hemphill came from her research. She read that there was a breakthrough in glassblowing in 1450 when Angelo Barovier invented cristallo (clear glass). From that tiny seed and the knowledge that Angela's daughter Maria was the first woman to open her own furnace for enamelling, Ms. Hemphill has written another fine novel in verse. Since she could find little information about Maria, she re-imagined her story and brings it to her fans (and hopefully to a brand new group of readers) in this teen romance set in Italy.  Trips to Murano and to Venice added much to her knowledge of the setting and of glassblowing itself. All that she learned there, she has embedded in the telling.

Roles for women in Venice in the fifteenth century were predetermined by family, class and conventions. On his deathbed, Maria promised her father that she would marry a nobleman and bring honor to the family. It should be her sister Giovanna's destiny; but that is not her father's wish. There are many reasons for her life to be different, but for that promise.

Maria loves the family's work. She wants to be a glassblower. She feels inept next to her beautiful, accomplished sister who is much better suited to a noble life than Maria ever will be. To add fuel to the fire, Giovanna is angry with her sister for the circumstances, and they are no longer close. Maria is distraught by that turn of events and by the men who are encouraged to court her:

"Full of Feathers, Short of Hair

Another old stuffed shirt
Mother and I greet
in the parlor,
aged to be my father
not my husband.
An odd, pudgy man,
why does he not cover
his skull, as he is bald
in the center of his head?"

Her mother touts her many talents  to each of the suitors; few seem worthy of her daughter's hand. Soon, another problem arises. When Luca, a handsome young glassblower, is offered a place in the family business, Maria finds herself attracted to him. At the same time, her mother feels she has found the perfect suitor for her. Signore Bembo is related to the Doge, and holds a place of honor in Venetian society. A meeting is planned and visits to his palazzo are made. Maria's heart is sore:
"Two Suitable Suitors?

How is a girl to choose
between a green dress
and a blue?

One pleases your family,
the other pleases you.

One man appreciates beauty,
is kind, and fulfills your duty.

The other creates glass,
but what of the future if he knows no past?

To follow the head
or the heart,
this is the question
that rips me apart."

You will not be surprised by the ending. However, Maria's plan is wrought with concentrated thought and concern for the eventual outcome:

My Own Plan

My plan is
to ask Andrea
to marry my sister,
no, to ask Andrea
to ask my sister to marry him,
no, to ask Andrea if he wants
to ask my sister if she wants
to marry him.

My plan is
more complicated
than I thought."

Sure to appeal to teens with its elements of feminism, romance, sibling rivalry, history, humor, and a detailed look at the art of glassblowing. It is an engaging tale with likable protagonists, a quick pace and an incredible setting.

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