The Plot: May is spending the summer in Florence with family friends. It’s not just a great chance to be in Florence, it’s also a way to be away from home, away from Vermont, away from her friends, and away from her parents. Her parents, who have decided to split up and May has to decide who to live with, her mother or her father.
Instead of deciding, she is in Florence, with Liam, her best friend, and his mother, Gwen.
Things don’t go as planned when May awakes to a presence in her room. A girl, her age, who looks like her. Cristofana.
Cristofana has reached across from time, from the fourteenth century, to find May. Now that she has, she won’t let her go. It’s madness, the way Cristofana hunts May down and visits her time, and that Cristofana wants to bring May back to her own time. Cristofana’s time: 1348. The year of the plague.
It would be madness, except that May finds herself drawn to this strange girl who looks just like her, and drawn to the past.
The Good: May and Cristofana: two identical looking girls separated by centuries. In May’s time, Cristofana looks like a ghost; and when May visits Cristofana, May appears as a ghost. Cristofana has figured out how the portale between the two works and she has also figured out identical things can “switch” places and be real in the other time.
This is why Cristofana has searched through time for May: to switch. To escape 1348. But to do this, May would have to agree to go to 1348. May knows her history and that is insane.
Speaking of insanity, Cristofana is not — not what? How to describe Cristofana, who looks like May but is so unlike her? And at this point I have to say something. Cristofana is mean and cruel, blunt and self centered, and I loved her. I liked her more than I liked May. Why? Because Cristofana is not the typical person who appears in such a time slip story. She is not a lady, she is not rich, she is not privileged. She reveals her story in bits and pieces, and even at the end, there are parts May will never know. But Cristofana is a survivor, and I have always liked and respected survivors. Cristofana’s world, and her need to take care of herself, both before and during the Plague, has shaped Cristofana and I respect that even if, like May, I was half-afraid of Cristofana.
May is unsettled: she is in Florence away from home, but she also knows that home has disappeared because of her parent’s divorce. Through Cristofana’s eyes, May, a typical high school student (she is about to be a senior) is spoiled and soft and untested. It is easy to see why Cristofana is hungry for May’s world and life, but why would May go back to 1348? At first, when she is just a ghost, it is curiosity, to see if it is real, to know what Florence was like. Being like a ghost is a safe way to visit, but May is not untouched by what she sees. When she switches places to be temporarily “real” in the past, she connects with a young man, Marco, and that connection is something she cannot let go. Even though she knows it is hundreds of years ago, she wants to see him again. To know the Plague does not touch him. And the Plague, the descriptions of the Plague and fear and the dying and those who manage to survive: so
I loved the descriptions of Florence, past and present, the food, the architecture, the people, the places. To see May compare the “then” and “now”.
But is May going to “then”? Gwen is a medieval literature professor and a travel writer. Is it possible that May is creating the “then” as a way to not deal with her current unhappiness? I considered it; even the text considers it. But Cristofana is such a unique person, I can’t imagine May inventing her, deliberately or not. Not just unique: at times, unpleasant. What “then” and “now” asks is, who is a person? Who is May, without her parents? Who is Cristofana, as the Plague kills all she knows? Do we reinvent ourselves, and how? And when do we let ourselves love, or keep ourselves from love?
One slight quibble: Cristofana speaks English because her mother was English, so she and May can communicate. But doesn’t language change over centuries? I decided that was one of those things that I had to just go with and not think about too much, and that since Cristofana has been looking through time for the person who is her twin, the person she can switch with, that some of that time travel as a spirit included modernizing her English skills.
Final thought: the writing. I just fell into the writing. “There’s a certain kind of silence when you wake in the deep of night, in a strange bed, knowing that someone has entered the room.” “It worries her, how calm she feels now that it’s over, how accepting. Does madness come over ou that quickly, like a wool blanket thrown over your head . . . and you just learn to live in the dark? This calm adaptability is almost worse than whatever’s causing these weird delusions.” “We are all we have.”