The Famil­iar

  • Review
By – April 8, 2024

Leigh Bardugo’s The Famil­iar trans­ports read­ers to Spain dur­ing its Gold­en Age. It’s a sweep­ing nov­el that opens with an omi­nous line: If the bread hadn’t burned, this would be a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry.” And it is this per­va­sive sense of malaise, of threats seen and unseen that per­me­ates each page of the story. 

Luzia Cota­do is a maid in Casa Ordoño in Madrid. It’s an unas­sum­ing house, whose Don and Doña long for nicer dress­es and hors­es, bet­ter social stand­ing, and every­thing else that those in the more styl­ish parts of their town have. Doña Valenti­na in par­tic­u­lar makes Luzia’s life dif­fi­cult: she strug­gles with a lone­li­ness that some­times takes the form of bit­ter recrimination. 

Luzia’s pow­er­ful words are at the puls­ing heart of this sto­ry. Her lan­guage is described as Span­ish reshaped with the ham­mer of exile,” putting one imme­di­ate­ly in mind of Ladi­no. She learns these phras­es from her aunt Hualit, with whom she must keep her rela­tion­ship a secret; Hualit has changed her name and hid­den her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty to become mis­tress to a man of influ­ence at court. It is only in stolen moments with Hualit that Luzia learns the mag­ic of these phras­es and the songs she puts them to. With her par­ents gone, and her cir­cum­stances and prospects bleak, Luzia feels the ever-present yawn­ing of want — of ambi­tion for a life in which she can put her sharp mind and gifts to work.

Luzia uses her mag­ic to undo the burn­ing of bread, to ease days of serv­ing that are already tax­ing: It was dif­fi­cult not to do some­thing that easy when every­thing else was so hard.” But one day — the day fore­told in the open­ing — these small moments set off a cas­cade of events that will toss every­one in its waves.

For each of these char­ac­ters, there is a sharp ten­sion between per­cep­tion and truth. Luzia’s out­ward appear­ance as an illit­er­ate Catholic ser­vant is at war with her Jew­ish her­itage and the half-for­got­ten Hebrew phras­es and rit­u­als that tie her to her deceased par­ents. In order to sur­vive, she must main­tain her facade, attend­ing mass fre­quent­ly and eat­ing pork pub­licly. This fur­thers Luzia’s sense of oth­er­ness and isolation. 

Hualit’s actions and words also show the chameleon-like nature one needs to have to sur­vive in this world as a con­ver­so — yet it comes at a very steep price. Luzia’s mag­i­cal phras­es — her mir­a­cles,” as they’re called — are bal­anc­ing on the fine line between satan­ic and God-giv­en; and it is how those around her choose to inter­pret them that will deter­mine her fate. The Inqui­si­tion looms large over Madrid and Bardugo’s char­ac­ters, a sin­is­ter and dead­ly shad­ow poised to consume. 

Luzia’s Ladi­no phras­es and songs serve as a balm to the small moments of dis­com­fort. They give both the read­er and Luzia a sense of a larg­er Jew­ish world, with voic­es from the dias­po­ra offer­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty. Luzia’s mag­ic seems to be born of dis­place­ment and the blend­ing of cul­tures and lan­guages. Beneath the melodies and refrains them­selves lie the true mean­ing and pow­er of these words: hope. It tan­ta­lizes every­one in Luzia’s orbit, entic­ing them toward a future they could scarce­ly dare to imag­ine (one such char­ac­ter is Luzia’s immor­tal and enig­mat­ic tutor, San­tán­gel). Read­ers will only wish that these mir­a­cles will be big enough to save us all.

Bar­dugo illu­mi­nates Madrid with rich his­tor­i­cal and sen­so­r­i­al details. Set­tings like the larder in the Ordoños house in which Luzia sleeps and the lav­ish palace of the king’s fall­en-from-grace sec­re­tary immerse read­ers in the tex­tures of this time. Luzia’s sto­ry of hope, con­nec­tion, and mir­a­cles large and small will stay with us in our own world, where we so often wear many faces to survive.

Simona is the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s man­ag­ing edi­tor of dig­i­tal con­tent and mar­ket­ing. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with a con­cen­tra­tion in Eng­lish and His­to­ry and stud­ied abroad in India and Eng­land. Pri­or to the JBC she worked at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her writ­ing has been fea­tured in LilithThe Nor­mal School, Dig­ging through the Fat, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She holds an MFA in fic­tion from The New School. 

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