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by Linda Ferri
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Reviewed by Akeela Gaibie-Dawood

Inspired by the legend of Cecilia, Linda Ferri's novel is set in second century Rome under the rule of Caesar and the ancient Roman gods. In a society where men dominate, and women are meant to be silent and submissive, we meet the incisive, outspoken, questing Cecilia, an only child in a noble family. Her adoring father has provided the best educators for her, so Cecilia knows Latin, Greek, poetry, philosophy, and more. One of her mentors encourages her to keep a journal, which she writes on papyrus and keeps hidden from others. The novel is her journal, reflecting her inner world in which she explores her dreams and fears, and pursues her unremitting quest for faith and inner peace.

In Roman society women's words are considered "vain and outrageous", and the young, fiercely independent Cecilia is often told that she thinks too much, speaks too much, and should know her place in society as a woman. Given her personality, this is, however, a lesson Cecilia struggles to realize. Her relationship with her mother is awkward, at best. Her mother is a drama queen, given to fits of fancy and depression. Though Cecilia finds her "most beautiful", she frequently weeps for her lost beauty. Her relationship with her father is special, and at times, moving. His face lights up when he sees her, and he will stop at almost nothing to please her. But he is a busy nobleman and a sought-after leader in his community.

At 15, she despairs of her parents' ostensible plans of marriage for her. Then she meets Valerian, the man she is to wed, and falls head over heels in love with him. He is, however, a product of his society, and cannot be a devoted husband. And so her search for inner contentment resumes. When life's dramas become too much for her, Cecilia loses herself in prayer, writing, and music. As she matures, she finds Christianity attractive, but inevitably comes up against the harsh and unforgiving condemnation of larger society. Yet, she cannot and will not relent—even in the face of incarceration and sure death. Will her beloved father's passionate pleas to renounce Christianity fall on deaf ears, or will they save her from certain death?

Cecilia is an interesting look at a distinct era in Roman history, at the role of women and men in this society, and their single-minded devotion to the gods. Christians were considered barbaric outcasts, condemned atheists and enemies of imperial Rome, and were subjected to violent hostility. This is the story of one woman on a resolute and demanding path, against all odds.