Book Review of A Light of Her Own by Carrie Callaghan.
Judith Leyster lived in Holland in the 17th century, during a time when such things as painting, needlework and music, were acceptable as feminine pastimes. For example, artist Frans De Grebber taught all his children to paint, including his daughter Maria, and he even took on Judith as an apprentice. Despite this, the domain for women was still mostly in the home, and not as professionals of any kind. This didn’t stop Judith and her unique talent from gaining entry into the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke, as one of their first female members. In this historical fiction novel, Callaghan paints a portrait of Judith with her colorful words.
Callaghan took on writing this biographical, historical fiction novel about a woman for whom there is very little information available, which certainly has its advantages. To begin with, she could take snippets of other information and insert it into her story. For example, the fact that Maria De Grebber learned to paint from her father, led Callaghan to make the assumption that Judith could have studied under Frans, thereby giving her a built-in friend. Since the real biographical information is so thin, none of this seems farfetched, and in fact, seems totally reasonable, particularly considering that Maria and Judith were fairly close in age. Add to that the idea that because we know that this Guild member painter taught his own daughter to paint, logic tells us that he might not have been averse to having a female student in his workshop.
With the stage now set, Callaghan then proceeds to lay out her plot. For the better part of this book, Callaghan gave us mostly alternate chapters featuring Judith and Maria. The chapters about Judith focus on her ambition and her willfulness to succeed, despite all the disadvantages in her path. The chapters about Maria seem to highlight her extremely deep devotion to her (then forbidden) Catholic faith. I must admit that because I wasn’t sure how all of Maria’s story fit in with Judith’s, and because I was promised a profile of this important female painter, the chapters about Maria felt much like a distraction to me. Thankfully, this gets resolved near the end of the novel, but I’m still left wondering if Callaghan didn’t give too much emphasis on Maria here, particularly since I kept rushing through those passages to get back to Judith. I’m not sure how Callaghan could have solved this, but I did feel it detracted somewhat from the overall flow of the book. Fortunately, this was the only problem I had with this book.
What I truly enjoyed here was how carefully Callaghan constructed Judith in this novel. From the beginning we knew that Judith was going to be a force to be reckoned with, if only for the fact that being an ambitious women during that era was a huge strike against her. Callaghan also brought a level of humanity, and eventually humility, into Judith’s professional drive, which truly made the reader admire her as well as appreciate her struggles. This also allows the reader to forgive her weaknesses and the mistakes she makes along the way, making her slightly unpredictable, in the best possible fashion. Maria, however, comes off as far less sympathetic and likeable, and I found myself somewhat confused by some of her motivations, but most of that can be attributed to my own negative attitudes towards overt religious devotion. Despite this, Callaghan did redeem Maria for me, near the end of the novel.
Callaghan’s language style here has just enough of an era-appropriate tenor to make it feel naturally authentic, which avoided feeling forced. I also appreciated the amount of poetically phrased, artists’ observations that Callaghan inserted into the narrative, which further reinforced Judith’s character as being a rarely talented woman. In addition, despite my feeling that some of the chapters devoted only to Maria disrupted some of the flow of this novel and slightly detracted from Judith’s story, Callaghan carefully modulated the action to build towards a very energetic climax. I’d even go so far as to say that the climactic scenes were practically as exciting as ones you’d find in thriller and adventure novels. Add to this a highly satisfactory conclusion that follows quickly afterwards, and doesn’t linger too long and you’ve got yourself a recipe that’s near perfection.
As you can see, I was very pleased with this book, and I can warmly recommend it to lovers of historical biographical fiction. I believe this is a book will appeal to many readers, particularly if they’re looking for something about a relatively unknown woman who was certainly ahead of her time. For all this, I’m giving this novel a solid four out of five stars.
I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley. Information on the blog tour and where you can buy this book is available below.
A Light of Her Own by Carrie Callaghan
About the Author
Carrie Callaghan is a writer living in Maryland with her spouse, two young children, and two ridiculous cats. Her short fiction has appeared in Weave Magazine, The MacGuffin, Silk Road, Floodwall, and elsewhere. Carrie is also an editor and contributor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. She has a Master’s of Arts in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.