ARC Review: The Ornatrix by Kate Howard

theornatrixcoverOfficial Synopsis: The passionate and elegantly dark tale of desire, obsession, and deceit by a talented new author.

In this beautifully written debut, novelist Kate Howard proves herself to be a talent to watch, spinning a striking historical yarn packed with suspense and period detail worthy of Kate Mosse, Jessie Burton, or Tracy Chevalier.

Flavia was born with a birthmark covering her face, in the shape of a bird in flight. A cloth dyer’s daughter, she grows up in a little house in the woods where her mother–ashamed of her mark–can keep her far away from prying eyes. But on the night before her younger sister’s wedding, Flavia does something drastic, something that will draw her into a much wider and stranger world than she could have imaged from her secluded family cottage. Flavia finds herself at the convent of Santa Giuliana, just outside the city walls of Perugia.

There she meets Ghostanza, a courtesan-turned-widow, whose white-lead painted face entrances Flavia, and whose beauty is matched only by her cruelty. Flavia becomes her ornatrix: her hairdresser and personal maid. But as white-lead paint rots the flesh below it, so Perugia, and Santa Guiliana, is rotting below the shimmer of wealth and privilege. And Flavia is drawn into a world of desire and jealousy that has devastating consequences.

Rich in description and character, Kate Howard’s stunning debut 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. It cannot fail to move.

 ***I was given an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review***

 Review: Dark, disturbing, beautiful, and gritty. I loved this book!

The Ornatrix by Kate Howard is a darkly beautiful historical fiction novel that takes us to Italy and to the story of Flavia, the daughter of a dyer. Flavia was born with a bird-shaped birthmark on her face, and lives hidden away from the world. She is sent to a convent, where she meets the hypnotizing Ghostanza, who teaches Flavia the art of beauty.

The Ornatrix has a fascinating premise, one that I was drawn to instantly upon reading the official synopsis, and it did not disappoint. It thrusts you into the world where women paint their faces with white-lead paint, slowly killing themselves to look beautiful.

The research that Kate Howard did was outstanding. The Ornatrix educates without sounding like a textbook. Each chapter is prefaced with a quote about old beauty techniques, and these were fascinating and horrifying to read what was recommended in the name of beauty. From the white-lead based cerussa (a kind of paste that covers the face), to plucking hairs way back along the forehead, to bathing in depilatory saunas that use quicklime and yellow arsenic, the beauty regimens were riveting to read about.

Besides what women used to do for the sake of beauty, there is also information about fabric and leather dying, and how this is done. This was fascinating to read about as well, as how certain items are used to make the colors more vibrant, and to learn how the process is done.

In terms of characters, they were intriguing, as none of them are what you could say is “likable”, but they are each fascinating in their own disturbing way. Our main character, Flavia, is compelling, in that she is very flawed. She’s not all that nice, she lies, she causes problems with her sister, but all of this comes from a place of how she was raised and treated due to the birthmark on her face. So, while she is flawed, she is very much human, and therefore is an interesting protagonist.

But the book belongs to Ghostanza Dolfin, the mysterious, beautiful Venetian woman who takes refuge in the convent. Did she murder her husband? Is she a courtesan? Does she have a younger lover? Ghostanza is violent and haunting, and she hides the secret of her Venetian cerussa, which Flavia and the apothecary, Il Sicofante, try to discover.

Other characters include Gilia Tassi, Ghostanza’s stepdaughter who is about to be married, Maestro Vitale, a Jewish physician who tries to dissuade the use of the cosmetics, and Il Sicofante, the apothecary that Flavia goes to work for. These characters are also interesting, and help round out the atmosphere of the novel.

The Ornatrix is very, very gritty. This is not your clean and easy historical fiction. It is darkly disturbing, and has some graphic scenes. Some of the descriptions of characters and actions are downright crude, and at times I just did not want those descriptions in my head, but at the same time the grittiness serves the dark atmosphere, and the juxtaposition between what is beautiful and what is ugly. So, for those wanting a nice, clean work of historical fiction, you may not care for the darkness noted here. But if the image of a woman rotting away on the inside while appearing beautiful on the outside intrigues you, you may really enjoy this novel.

The ending of this novel was shocking and disturbing, but fits the narrative, and I can’t wait to discuss this book with someone who has read it! I think this would be an excellent book club selection, provided the book club is willing to take on a more mature book, as there is so much to discuss, and the ending was absolutely spellbinding. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended for those that enjoy informative, compelling historical fiction.

Bottom Line: Dark and gritty, but beautiful. Excellent historical fiction!

I rated this book 5 stars on Goodreads.

 ***I was given an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review***

Links to The Ornatrix on   Amazon   and   Goodreads

Does this sound like a book that you would read? Are you intrigued by the premise?


16 thoughts on “ARC Review: The Ornatrix by Kate Howard

  1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll bring it up at my next book club meeting! My only concern is we just read Only Ever Yours recently, and that one was pretty dark at times–and the darkness is directed toward women–too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this would be an excellent book club book – there is so much to discuss from the beauty techniques to the characters and the setting. I’ve also read Only Ever Yours, and that book made me so depressed about myself and angry about treatment of women, but I didn’t experience that same anger & depression in reading The Ornatrix.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I hear ya! I’m trying to catch up on my ARCs right now, and then I really want to make a dent in the books I own that I haven’t read yet. Good luck reaching your goal in 2017! 🙂


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