Review | Sofie and Cecilia, Katherine Ashenburg

35926484Sofie and Cecilia is such a lovely, languid novel, about the friendship between the wives of two prominent Swedish painters in the early 20th century.

Sofie is a talented artist who has to downplay her own skills in order to soothe the ego of her arrogant husband Nils. As may be obvious, I absolutely loathed Nils, even though I realize he was very much a product of his time, and even though Ashenburg does a good job of showing why the changing arts landscape makes him so insecure about his own work. Still, I loved it every time another character compliments Sofie’s work and Nils gets his hackles up. Even though Sofie is careful not to take the spotlight away from Nils, she does write letters that she never sends, where she reveals her true feelings, and the snappishness in these letters are a welcome touch.

Cecilia is a fiercely private woman who mostly enjoys independence in managing her husband’s professional life. She also mostly tolerates his infidelities, and in a rather easily foreseen twist, ends up finding an unexpected love of her own. Her story was interesting, though I found myself more drawn to Sofie’s struggles, and Cecilia’s half of the book paled somewhat in comparison for me.

Cecilia and Sofie’s friendship is punctuated by discussions around classic literature, which totally thrills the bookworm in me. They use book characters (e.g. Dorothea from Middlemarch, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre, the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and so on) to talk about the complex feelings they have but can’t quite express directly about their own lives. Through their discussions about books, we see all the little things that add up to their dissatisfaction about their lives and marriages, and about the limitations around women’s roles in society during their time. As a plot device, I absolutely loved it. I remember my own experiences of reading these books, and how my responses may be similar to different to theirs. In a way, I almost felt like engaging in dialogue with these characters myself, and talking about how a lot of the things women faced in their time are still things women face in the present-day, and how maybe women’s fiction is a bridge that connects women across variances in lived experience and time periods.

Sofie and Cecilia is a beautiful book, with a lovely cover, and I’d recommend it to bookworms or anyone looking for a languid read on a quiet afternoon.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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