From the top floor of her Wrigleyville three-flat, Mary Osborne conjured her first novel of a girl growing up in Italy’s Renaissance, wrestling with how she’ll use her God-given talent to paint in a world that believes God only put you there to be someone’s wife and have his children.
(And a father hell-bent on making sure God’s will be done.)
Dealing with a stunning loss, Osborne found that out the hard way.
She was living the Chicago dream. A great career, a loving husband and a new baby, the three were nesting in that three-flat along the Southport corridor the couple had rightly gambled on and rehabbed. That was 1997, but within months of having her son, her ordered life unraveled. All at once, she found herself a widow, a single mom and head of a large household that was hers to fix and manage.
“I thought ‘What is this? This is somebody else’s life,’” Osborne told the Sun-Times.
“I thought I had my life all set up and then tragedy,” she said, without the faintest hint of self-pity.
She wrote her way through the grief and even finished a book on mourning that she says, happily, wasn’t published.
“It’s a good thing it wasn’t published because it was too close,” she said.
Today, Osborne says she still feels the loss but allows for other happiness in life: a 13-year-old son with his head screwed on right, a dating life and hitting the book-signing circuit to talk about her sometimes antagonistic protagonist Emilia Serafini, a teenager in 1400s Florence desperately fighting her father’s arrangement to marry her off.
While her instincts are right on, they’re not 100 percent. While veering off course, which costs her family dearly, the lessons of how she handles mistakes are timeless in a novel that is clearly aimed at young women.
Osborne, who will only say she’s in her 40s now, may have come of age at a time when juggling life and a career were expected. But she grew up in suburban Riverside watching the clearly defined roles of mother and father, husband and wife.
She watched as her mother shoved aside painting — she had been a greeting card artist — so there was time to fix dinner and listen attentively as her father talked about his day as foreman at R.R. Donnelly’s Lakeside Press.
While she loved writing, Osborne found herself feeling “more oriented toward the sciences.”
After graduating from Riverside Brookfield High School, she went to Knox College in downstate Galesburg where she earned a degree in chemistry — and moved on to a career in social work.
“I was thinking, ‘should I go to medical school?’ But I wanted to be a writer. I ended up in social work, ended up working with teenage girls” at a shelter in Naperville.
Her work there and later as a nurse gave her plenty of insight in fractured bodies and souls, of healing and death.
“I was always working on short stories about my patients,” Osborne said.
But it was her own experience, and loss, including her husband and later her mother, along with a trip to Italy, that led her to Renaissance Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio and his mystical themes that gave life to 14-year-old Emilia.
A girl in need of some good, solid advice, Emilia frequently turns to her grandmother’s curious A Manual to the Science of Alchemy.
While alchemy represents the practice of turning metal in to gold, in the literal sense, it is also a philosophy about transformation.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments in the book is an excerpt about the painful self-awareness that comes with growing up: “Know this, thou art born to suffer an unalterable fate and wicked destiny. Rather, thou art born to dominate the world and create! Yet this God-given right is oft forgotten. Children who come to this earth believing in the promise of life grow up to limit their imaginations and accept defeat. Corrupted to see themselves as weak and powerless, hopelessness, poverty and fear dominate. Yet this is not what God, in his infinite wisdom, has ordained.”
Asked who this book is for, she pauses and says it’s ideal for young women heading to college or heading out in to the post-high school world.
“This is the book you send your daughter to school with,” Osborne said. “This is the stuff you want her to know about going after your own dreams.”
Lisa Donovan is a Sun-Times reporter.
Reprinted from Chicago Sun Times