I am a Salman Rushdie fan. I love his quirky magical realism, word play, and lavish language. The Enchantress of Florence started off promising: I was immediately pulled into its playfulness and beautiful prose.
But then something happened early on, and I became a bit disenchanted: I started to realize how much it is a book written by a man for men. Granted, I should have been tipped off by the title, but it started to seem like every woman in the book was A) a prostitute or concubine, B) the most beautiful woman any man had ever seen, whom all men would be willing to die for (and there were actually a few of these—a remarkable feat really, to have three most beautiful women in the world in one book!), C) a jealous shrew of a wife, or D) a non-existent figment of men’s imaginations.
To be fair, something about the magical qualities of Rushdie’s writing means that no one comes off as fully realistic—there’s a sort of comic book-y feel to much of his writing, but all the men in the story are defined by something other than their relationships to women, which is not true of the women: They seem to exist only to tell us something about the men. Further, Rushdie’s men are real men: Akbar the Great, Machiavelli, the Vespuccis. The women are fictions. I suppose this could be the fault of a decidedly patriarchal past in which women weren’t rulers or thought of as great thinkers and where women’s stories simply weren’t recorded. But that shouldn’t excuse Rushdie: He’s a good enough writer to create women who aren’t mere caricatures. But, both metaphorically and literally in The Enchantress of Florence, the men are telling the stories.
There is a plot: Akbar the Great, in trying to be the kind of ruler he truly wants to be, comes to know a yellow-haired foreigner, who claims to be a relation of his and of Amerigo Vespucci. It’s never true if the story this man tells about a beautiful woman who bewitched all of Florence is true, but, to Akbar, it doesn’t much matter: He is himself enchanted with this woman and conjures her for himself out of Vespucci’s story. The book follows part of his reign of the Mughal Empire and gives us some of the history of Renaissance Italy. It’s not an uninteresting story, though I will confess I had some difficulty keeping track of who was who and how they were all related. But ultimately I just didn’t fall in love—even really in like—the way I wanted to simply because I was annoyed much of the time.
If you’ve never read Rushdie, don’t start here. Start with Midnight’s Children or even The Satanic Verses. He deserves all the praise he’s received, and I look forward to a next book, which I hope will be better than The Enchantress of Florence.