Linda Ferri uses the story of Saint Cecilia of Rome to portray the universality -- across centuries, religions, and cultures -- of the search for meaning in life. In her compelling novel, Cecilia, Ferri alters the accepted facts of Cecilia's life -- Christian parents, pagan husband converted by her devotion -- and isolates her Cecilia within a pagan family, leaving her utterly on her own to find the way to substantiate and validate her existence. Cecilia is imprisoned within a Roman society that allowed citizens (men of nobility) freedom of thought and action but limited noble women to roles of mother and wife. Her father educated her beyond what the norm for 2nd century girls (perhaps because she was his only living child) but all her education brings Cecilia little joy. Instead, Cecilia is burdened by the ability to discern the limits of her life and the inability to do anything about it. She is a first wave feminist, capable of analyzing the inequities that bind her to an unfulfilling life and undermined by most everyone around her.
The details of life in Rome in the early centuries A.D. are fascinating, including bits about the "library in the temple of Apollo Palatine, where the emperor himself, Marcus Aurelius borrows his books" and about the music of the time, including charming songs sung by Cecilia, accompanying herself on the zither (she is the patron saint of musicians because she purportedly sang while enduring martyrdom). The status of slaves, the political and social requirements of nobility, the draw of the Coliseum, and the cloaked nascence of Christianity are woven into the story seamlessly through the narration of Cecilia. Her voice is both authentic for the times in which she lived and thoroughly human and modern in its cycles of frustration, longing, and resolution.
Cecilia is surrounded by women who are victims of the society they are fortunate enough to belong to (the alternative, of slave and concubine, is far worse). Cecilia's mother, suffering from too many miscarriages and children lost at an early age, turns to the Egyptian cult of Isis to assuage her pain. Cecilia's friends either brave the very dangerous prospect of childbirth to secure some companionship in their lives or take on lovers. One friend has a devoted husband but most of the women, Cecilia included, are low on the list of their husbands' interests.
The story of Cecilia offers support for a new series, The Real Housewives of Ancient Rome, when she reflects that,
"After reluctantly occupying myself with the shopping for the house, unable to find a use for all the money my husband gave me, I passed the time waiting for his return in a restless indolence: if I read to myself, my voice soon grew feeble and died, and the same happened with the zither. Constantly restless, like a spinning top I went through the house again and again, without finding anything that captured my attention. What was the use of my education if I now found myself at a dead end, my head full of fine words and my soul in turmoil; a pot in which every sort of affection and inclination boiled, but not a pinch of those gifts would have made me a good wife?"
Cecilia may be a poor rich housewife but Ferri also makes her an intelligent seeker, who will find meaning not in material possessions or cosmetic enhancements (well known in ancient Rome) but in spirituality and connection.
Cecilia's salvation from boredom and inertia comes in the form of Christianity. Within the enclave of her new friends in faith, she finally finds a woman worthy of emulation, a widower of means and therefore with both the security and independence to do as she wishes. Petronia wishes to help those less fortunate than herself and to live within the precepts of Christ. Cecilia joins with her, and finds solace. But the clever Cecilia, under the guidance of Ferri, also stays true to her feminist deconstruction of power and motives, and finds within her new circle of believers the same double standards for men and women as pervaded the pagan Roman society she has rejected.
Ferri grants to her Cecilia a less spectacular ending than provided in the mythology of the Saint, wherein the Romans pursued various methods to kill off the young Christian, all of which were miraculously inadequate until she finally succumbed after three blows from an axe to her neck and three days of dying, preaching, and singing. In Ferri's version, Cecilia remains bound to earth and to earthly duties of love, kindness, and the endless but honorable search for meaning in life.