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It’s dangerous for a girl to be a mathematical prodigy in 18th century Rome Daniela Messo and her father withdraw themselves from the world until Giuseppe Balsamo finds them convinced that Daniela has inherited the secrets of a long dead Jewish mystic Before long they are playing the role of wonder working pilgrims as they swindle their way across Europe en route to Jerusalem Daniela’s struggle to find a woman’s place in the world for her body mind and soul tells us how far society has come and how far we still must go

10 thoughts on “The Fiery Alphabet

  1. says:

    As someone who has tried my hand at the complexities of historical fiction I'm lost in admiration for what Diane Lefer has accomplished here an enthralling look at the timeless uestions of women's intellectual and love life and how they intertwine or don't at the dancing dog phenomenon as the heroine is paraded before the venerable men of the day and at the remarkable way that a determined woman could find adventure any time any place The complex character of her lover who ultimately fails her and himself stands in for a whole world of well intentioned men who don't have the strength of character of the women they are matched with As our heroine turns from one man to another as she undergoes the rigors of many kinds of love and lust the reader learns a great deal about settings that cannot help but fascinate us While of course this is historical fiction and not history there is much to learn here and Lefer gives us the sources and tells us where she has departed from them As entertainment the book succeeds but also as a vehicle for raising a world of thought provoking uestions

  2. says:

    I recently decided to join goodreads to share with others some of my favorite books I suppose most of my reviews will be overwhelmingly positive I don't feel the need to talk about books I didn't likeDiane Lefer's The Fiery Alphabet is a remarkable tale well told It takes place in 18th century Italy and other locales following the adventures of a child math prodigy who is treated as a witch and her Svengali like mentor the historical figure and charlatan Cagliostro It combines a near grotesue vision of the 18th century where science is still buried under pompous superstition with a coming of age story and sweeping overview of women's rights I found the endeavor thrilling It starts a bit slowly with a foreword about the translator's journey This part can be skipped The clash of ideas enlightenment versus dogmatism is illuminated with brilliant language A great read

  3. says:

    Can I do 45 stars? The book is truly unusual and beautifully written Daniela is a memorable character whose learning exceeds the norms of her time She travels throughout Europe and the middle East first deceiving and then learning from those she meets The author avoids ALL of the obvious cliches and takes us on a wild ride of intellect magic and illusion

  4. says:

    Diane Lefer writes well She has produced a literate and intelligent book sparkling with ideas Unfortunately it takes than interesting ideas to make a novel‘The Fiery Alphabet’ makes some claim to being a historical novel complete with notes on the real history of some of the characters However as a piece of historical fiction it doesn’t work Too many of the events contradict the historical facts as the author’s notes make clear More importantly the characters live in a world of magic and mystery rebelling against the social norms The result is that the background is too distorted by the viewpoint of the characters to ring remotely true I’d call the approach magical realism but the late 18th century doesn’t provide a solid reality for the magic to play out against In the end the characters move through a world of smoke and mirrors rather than the real world of any era At the beginning the story has an actual location the characters have some sort of or less credible background and cause leads to effect in a rational way Daniela is a child prodigy Her mother is dead and she lives in Rome with her father and an elderly servant On her 13th birthday she unwittingly offends a Cardinal and spends the next several years isolated from the world Into this isolation comes the mysterious Balsamo Part con man part magician he eventually steals Daniela away and leads her on an increasingly surreal journey through a magical Europe Eventually he abandons her and she lives out her life as a mysterious witchmother figure in TurkeyDaniela’s adventures are vastly complicated than this overview suggests She gets pregnant has an abortion starts a home for foundlings meets Casanova smuggles a future Turkish Sultan from the seraglio and has all manner of adventures some involving the rich and famous but others among unknown people struggling with their ordinary lives Her adventures allow the reader insights into the nature of religious faith the basic principles of democracy the credulity of men and the relations between men and women Diane Lefer has a lot to say on many of these subjects and she says it well Sometimes paragraphs that make sense at first glance lose their substance on analysis but that’s a novelist’s right The problem is that especially as the book goes on we get and philosophising and less and less story Increasingly this became a book I just didn’t want to pick up The philosophy put into the mouth of a woman who seems than a little deranged becomes suspect and the narrative bogs down as the role of women is debated again and againThis is a book where the whole is much less than the sum of its parts which is a shame because some of the parts are very good indeed Ultimately though the book like its protagonist ends up detached from reality spouting dubious philosophy and confusing mortal men with trickery It seems likely that Daniela has mastered real magic but it is easily lost amid the illusions with which she deceives visitors Diane too may have real magic in her perception But like Daniela she has buried it under so many layers of artifice that the reader can never be sure if anything of real worth is hidden beneath the superficial cleverness

  5. says:

    It’s dangerous for a girl to be a mathematical prodigy in eighteenth century Rome​Daniela Messo and her father withdraw themselves from the world until Giuseppe Balsamo occultist and charlatan finds them convinced Daniela has inherited the secrets of a long dead Jewish mystic In Balsamo's company Daniela sets off across Europe en route to Jerusalem as they play the role of wonder working pilgrims swindling people even as they seek salvation Daniela's astonishing story was lost to history until intrepid explorer Diane Lefer unearthed a trove of documents and translated them so that this sensitive shocking often subversive material can now be made public Across the centuries Daniela speaks to us of love and betrayal fraud and faith the ongoing conflict between science and religion and carries us to the streets of Rome Polish forests fields and villages the Sultan's harem in Constantinople and beyondHer struggle to find a woman's place in the world for her body mind and soul tells us how far society has come and how far we still must go

  6. says:

    The Fiery Alphabet What an amazing rollicking ride of a novel I love history but rarely pick up a history book since I’d much rather read a story But this STORY gave me so much history the strange era of late 1700’s all across England I was especially intrigued by details of harem life in Turkey—right down to their version of a bikini wax Mysticism—religious and occult—percolated through as our narrator a great “seeker” traveled across empires The she sought AN identity the she realized hers like most everyone’s sits on mysteries and “stories” This was a translation albeit a fictional one and I loved how we find out at the end that bits and pieces of this life story are missing andor may be erroneous

  7. says:

    Deep funny fascinating and not to be missed