I have discussed Madeleine Robins. I love Madeleine Robins. She wrote the Sarah Tolerance mysteries, but I hadn't read anything else by her yet--not till now, when I have fallen in love with Sold for Endless Rue.
Okay, I'm out of practice here, and it's late and I need to get to bed, so this is going to be complicated. The structure of the book isn't hard to explain, but it's hard to explain why the book is so wonderful. Basically, the book is divided into three parts. In the first, Laura is taken in and trained by a midwife. In the second, Agnesa is a bride who is expecting a child. In the third, Bieta is the daughter of an acclaimed female doctor and in training herself.
So, we've got midwives and medical students in 13th century Salerno. If you read Mistress of the Art of Death, you know that female doctors were not unheard of at the time, and this is fascinating to me. How different did Salerno need to be from the rest of Medieval Europe? All of those Mediterranean places where Africa and Europe and the Middle East came together at that time are just amazing, and the details of Salerno are just wonderful.
But really, this book is about how every choice we make is influenced by all the other choices that came before--our own and everyone else's. The character and historical details of Laura training as a midwife and medica in the first part would have been more than enough to keep me reading, but the weight of her history and the surprising ways it affects her are what make this more than just interesting.
Laura has been kept as a slave by a man who murdered her family and destroyed her home. When she escapes, she's hidden by Crescia, a midwife, and stays with her to learn her craft. Most of the story is just about Laura growing up, but at every turn, we see how her personality was shaped by her life--by her family, her captor, her teacher, her understanding of danger, her fear and defiance. And as we see how Laura is shaped by, say, Crescia, we learn a little of how Crescia was shaped by her own life.
Then these observations are tied into how each person's understanding of the others is imperfect, and how even in agreement, they have differences. And all these observations ricochet, explicitly and implicitly, through the different parts of the story. And now I'm going to stop talking because I don't want to spoil it, but wow. We can't really know each other, and sometimes the decisions we think are correct are damaging--sometimes while still being right.
If you're not someone who thinks "wow, a domestic novel with character studies of medieval midwives! Sign me up!" then this might not be the book for you. But lordy, it was the book for me.