Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Eleonora and Joseph is a remarkably well-researched and ambitious historical novel by Julieta Rodrigues. Rodrigues is a true maestra—a queen of historical fiction—and this novel is a great example of that.
This novel follows three central characters between the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s: Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, Joseph Correia de Serra, and Thomas Jefferson.
Eleonora is in the more dire and suspenseful situation of the three, making her the most active of the protagonists. When we meet her, she is on trial for a capital offense punishable by death: treason via subversion, a “crime of opinion” against the crown. Eleonora is an aristocrat (a marquise), which makes her supposed crime an even more fascinating and complicated issue. She is a Jacobin, someone who subscribes to the ideals of French Revolutionary thinking. When her letters containing these ideas are found, she is charged as a Jacobin conspirator with the potential of being publicly hanged.
Complicating things even more, she is a former friend and close servant of the queen of Naples and Sicily, Carolina, who has the misfortune of uncovering one of her deepest secrets: a potential Lesbian affair with a woman named Emma. So, there's a lot more to this than just legal trouble. It's personal.
Eleonora's life and inevitable death form the tragic crux of this novel—its heart and center. The reader is posed with the question: are some things like life, liberty, truth, and right worth dying for? Or should we simply accept the status quo and do as we're told. As a high-born poet in the middle of the Enlightenment, Eleonora is able to communicate a lot of the thoughts and ideas of those who are silenced or who go unheard, such as peasants and common people. She is able to communicate these things beautifully, boldly, and powerfully.
The deuteragonist of this novel is Joseph Correia de Serra, a Portuguese abbot and naturalist who happened to have been one of Eleonora's most passionate lovers (in this telling of their story). In truth, we don't quite know if Joseph and Eleonora were ever friends or partners, though it is possible. We have to admit that Joseph was one of our least favorite characters alongside Queen Carolina. Joseph's primary motivation is self-preservation followed by upward mobility, which he believes will help him to preserve himself. Keep in mind that not only is Robespierre chopping off heads by the thousands in France, but the Spanish inquisition has happened, and it just so happens that Joseph was persecuted by the inquisition. Joseph lives in fear and paranoia of being persecuted again.
In one of the more upsetting scenes in the book, Joseph discovers a frantic letter from the now-deceased Eleonora pleading with him to advocate for her and save her from being executed. Frustratingly, Joseph burns the letter out of fear that it will be traced to him and he will be implicated in subversion. What's extra frustrating about this is that, instead of feeling bad for or sad about Eleonora, Joseph instead fears for himself. He later calls this “heartless. Maybe even cruel.” It is! It doesn't ingratiate us to him at all, and it doesn't sell their relationship too well (to the reader). It's almost like a footnote in the grand scheme of things.
It doesn't help that Joseph comes across as rather selfish, pursuing power and higher status, using the church as a catapult to become a diplomat.
And guess who he becomes a diplomat to? The Americans. Specifically, he is sent to meet with former US president Thomas Jefferson, the tritagonist of the novel. Jefferson is presented almost like a character in a time-travel novel, similar to the portrayal of the founding fathers in the Season of the Swords series by Domenic Melillo. Jefferson almost becomes like a character intended to make commentary and provide exposition for both the Joseph and the audience.
There are a few interesting things to note about Thomas Jefferson in the novel. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that Jefferson is accurately portrayed as a slave owner, albeit a soft and apologetic one. This is ironic because, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, he clearly stated that “all men are created equal.” He even admits that he has flogged escape slaves before, although the weight of this is constantly dampened with excuses like that it was only done under extreme circumstances or when they had repeatedly attempted an escape. We are also constantly reminded how nice, friendly, and generous he is to his slaves. He even, supposedly, refuses to sell slaves who don't want to leave him or his estate. He says that his slaves were inherited.
He also seems to have a lot of regrets about slavery existing at all.
One of the notable things about Thomas Jefferson in this book is that his relationship with a Black slave mistress is discussed, as well as the children he fathered with her.
Jefferson also talks about current events (at the time) like the Louisiana Purchase and Jose Artigas's piracy.
Eleonora, Joseph, and Jefferson were members of the “Republic of Letters” who were advocating for progressive ideas at the time.
If there's anything that holds it back, it's that the presentation of events sometimes seems forced, wooden, and/or stilted. There just doesn't seem to be an emotional bite or impact like we'd expect from a book about two separated lovers, one of whom is tragically and needlessly executed. However, Joseph as a character really robs the reader of that emotional punch. The relationship between Joseph and Eleonora, which should be the heart and soul of the book, does kinda fall flat. It almost seems like this narrative lacks emotional depth. Things are presented in a very matter-of-fact way. We also have every historical event and social issue imaginable (for the time period) just thrown at us, making things feel a bit random, disjointed, and unfocused.
Still, the amount of research that this author must've undertaken to put this together is beyond commendable. Apparently, she has a PhD from Columbia University and has taught these topics at some of the nation's top schools like Georgetown. She also visited the library of the American Philosophical Society and used its archives to research for this book. She has also interviewed numerous experts on the 18th century including professors on the topic. She even visited Thomas Jefferson's actual Monticello Estate!
This is definitely a candidate for “Best Research.”
Check it out on Amazon!