Letters of a Portuguese Nun by Myriam Cyr. Miramax Books. New York
2006. ISBN 1-4013-6016-5. Reviewed by Caliope
This book is categorized as an historical mystery. For that, it gets high
marks. It begins with history. It ends with mystery. In between, the
famous letters offer raw, poignant emotion.
Cyr spent years researching the Portuguese Nun an the letters reportedly written to her "dashing French officer." Cyr purports and believes the letters are authentic.
For centuries, society believed the letters were a fiction emerging from the salons of 17th Century France and that they were written by a man. The first half of the book tells of Portugal's shining moment, then it's war with Spain. After sixty years of occupation by Spain, Portugal was reduced to lawlessness, poverty and licentiousness. In 1640, Portugal rose up. The same year, Mariana Alcorforado was christened in a chapel in Portugal's southern most province. Her father was a man of weath and influence and he secured for her a very comfortable and rather unconventional position at the convent. There, Mariana learned French, Lati, Spanish, mathematics, music, history, geography and science while also learing to make the pastries Portugal was so famous for. Mariana met a French officer sometime in 1666 or 1667. Their affair was brief. He left her without a word.
The mystery begins. The officer is gone, a nun's reputation is hanging by a thread. The letters are sent to the officer and eventually arrive in the hands of an eager and shrewd publisher.
The commentary of society at the time was that the letters were created from a game of Dangerous Liasons proportions. They were published in a book that circulated the salons. They were the talk of the town and from them came a list of "The Thirty-two Questions on Love." These are included in the back of "Letters."
#2. Is it better to have free access to a person we love, but that does not fully return our love, or to be perfectly loved by someone who is not free to see us?
#13. What is the lesser crime in love, to be refused or not dare to ask? The book takes a reader through some paces. The history is real and the names, titles and relationships of key historical figures can be confusing. The letters are certainly raw and stream of consciousness-like. The way the book ends leaves one wondering but with a strong sense that Mariana did love her officer, she wrote him letters and her story is just beginning to be known.