THE ORNATRIX

Kate Howard

In this exquisitely dark debut, Kate Howard delivers a stirring tale on the cost of beauty, packed with suspense and period detail worthy of Kate Mosse, Jessie Burton, and Tracy Chevalier.

Cursed from birth by the bird-shaped blemish across her face, Flavia spends much of her life hidden from the outside world. Lonely and alienated even from her family, she sabotages her sister’s wedding in a fit of jealous rage and is exiled to serve in the convent of Santa Giuliana. Soon she finds that another exile dwells in the convent: a former Venetian courtesan named Ghostanza whose ostentatious appearance clashes with the otherwise austere convent and sparks gossip throughout the town.

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In this exquisitely dark debut, Kate Howard delivers a stirring tale on the cost of beauty, packed with suspense and period detail worthy of Kate Mosse, Jessie Burton, and Tracy Chevalier.

Cursed from birth by the bird-shaped blemish across her face, Flavia spends much of her life hidden from the outside world. Lonely and alienated even from her family, she sabotages her sister’s wedding in a fit of jealous rage and is exiled to serve in the convent of Santa Giuliana. Soon she finds that another exile dwells in the convent: a former Venetian courtesan named Ghostanza whose ostentatious appearance clashes with the otherwise austere convent and sparks gossip throughout the town.

When Ghostanza claims Flavia as her ornatrix—her personal hairdresser and handmaid—Flavia is pulled into a world of glamor and concealment where admiration is everything and perfection is the ultimate, elusive goal. And she soon finds that with beauty in her grasp, in the form of the poisonous but stunning white lead cerussa, Flavia will do anything to leave her marked face behind.

Rich in description and character, Kate Howard’s stunning novel is painted against a vivid historical landscape with themes and characters relevant today, tackling issues of belonging, female identity, and the perception of beauty.

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  • Overlook Press
  • Hardcover
  • December 2016
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781468313826

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$27.95

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About Kate Howard

Kate HowardKate Howard received her PhD in English Literature from the University of Kent. Her extensive travels throughout Italy, especially the Umbria region, inspired her fiction. The Ornatrix is her debut novel.

Praise

Kate Howard’s exceptional debut novel should be enjoyed in sips like fine wine, to better savor the lush, evocative prose all the way to the satisfying finish. It sent me immediately to my cosmetic shelf to decipher the real ingredients of all those miracle creams for which I have paid so dearly, even as I remembered that the more things change, the more they stay the same—especially human nature.—Brenda Rickman Vantrease, bestselling author of The Illuminator

In The Ornatrix, author Kate Howard strips away the gilded facades of Renaissance Italy to reveal the sordid underside of the quest for physical beauty. Brave and brilliant, this is a novel that is as darkly compelling as a rare black pearl.—Patricia Bracewell, author of the Emma of Normandy trilogy

Kate Howard’s marvelous debut novel creates a seething, sensual idiom entirely its own. Exquisite, earthy, witty – this is a book of rare beauty, about beauty. In this intensely-imagined, elegant and erudite novel, the story of a 16th century Italian woman’s quest for beauty springs vividly to life.”—Wendy Wallace, author of The Painted Bridge

 

Discussion Questions

1. The complex and flawed characters of The Ornatrix are central to the progression of the novel. Which characters did you like or dislike? Why?

2. Envy is often a catalyst for conflict in The Ornatrix. How would the story change if the characters of Flavia, Ghostanza, and Il Sicofante did not act on their jealousy?

3. Discuss Flavia’s quest to attain physical beauty. How does it change over the course of the narrative? How does her self-perception evolve over time in relation to both her birthmark and her relationships with others?

4. Just as cosmetics conceal a wide range of imperfections, so too were the true motives of The Ornatrix characters obscured. Which character’s development was most surprising?

5. What do you think the author was trying to achieve by including references to mythology throughout the story? Do you think she was successful?

6. Discuss how the setting of the convent of Santa Giuliana is integral to the novel. How would the story be different if it took place elsewhere in town?

7. The characters in The Ornatrix have highly evocative names that can be roughly translated from Italian. In what ways do their names affect the perception of their personalities?

8. The author intersperses passages from Agnolo Firenzuola’s Discorsi delle bellezze delle donne (“On the Beauty of Women”) and other Renaissance beauty remedies for women throughout the novel. How does the inclusion of these treatises impact the novel as a whole?

9. The characters in The Ornatrix are highly superstitious. How do these superstitions influence the action of novel?

10. The female characters within the novel have tumultuous and complex relationships, especially those with a mother-daughter dynamic. How do the relationships between Flavia and Mona Grazia, Flavia and Ghostanza, and Ghostanza and Gilia change throughout the novel?

11. Although the novel is set during the sixteenth century, many of the issues explored within The Ornatrix—belonging, female identity, and the perception of beauty—are relevant today. How would the story change if it were to take place during the present? What would remain the same?