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Tracy Chevalier specializes in historical fiction that spotlights women's lives during eras that kept them mostly backstage.

Orsola Rosso, the protagonist of Chevalier's "The Glassmaker," does plenty of laundry and babysitting as the daughter of a glassmaking family in Murano in 1486. But when fortunes turn and everyone must contribute to the business' survival, Orsola learns the only aspect of the glass trade allowed to women: crafting glass beads. The matriarch of a rival glass family observes: "Each glassmaker is different, just as each singer sounds different, or every woman's pasta is different."

Orsola and her family are particularly different, however, in that they age slowly while the world spins at its regular pace.

"The Glassmaker" spans more than 500 years while Orsola ages from 9 to her late 60s, alighting on the plague of 1574, Josephine Bonaparte's visit to Venice in 1797, World War I and the COVID outbreak of 2020. Chevalier's whirlwind tour of the histories of Venice and Murano, as well as the glassmaking trade, is fascinating — and told in such detail that it feels like an apprenticeship.

Orsola is a convincing character, independent enough to shirk women's chores and perfect a trade usually reserved for men, but bound by tradition and the norms of her times. She remains loyal to her family and island, and doesn't consider other radical choices, even when she falls in love with the wrong man.

Chevalier is surefooted as ever in the historical fiction parts of this novel but the speculative elements are shaky. It's clear her aim is to show the development of the glass bead trade through the eyes of one protagonist, instead of taking the route that, say, Annie Proulx did in her centuries-spanning "Barkskins," depicting the forestry industry's evolution through successive generations of a family. But to set up the time warp, an omniscient narrator breaks in periodically, telling us the world has jumped ahead 100 years and explaining "time passes differently" in Murano. So, basically, Chevalier just says "poof."

People who love fiction are glad to suspend disbelief, as game as golden retrievers to follow the bouncing ball of the story wherever it leads, without worrying too much about how it got there. But it helps the reader if the author smooths over nagging questions.

I was willing to accept that Orsola and her family aged slowly. But my mind wandered to the characters who lived outside the Rosso compound, also suspended in time. Did nobody accuse them of being vampires? And would bead-focused Orsola ever remark on what a trip it was to live for 500 years?

The closest she comes is in 1915, when a niece mentions they can light their glass shop with electricity, and Orsola thinks, "I am getting too old for all this change." But not that old — in the next section she's texting on her smartphone.

The Glassmaker
The Glassmaker

Besides this hitch, the novel is engrossing enough that Chevalier fans are not going to care. "The Glassmaker" conveys a vivid history lesson about a fascinating place and industry, animated through the lives and emotions of compelling characters. And it's nice to imagine that Orsola still haunts Murano, perfecting her beads.

Jenny Shank's fiction includes "Mixed Company" and "The Ringer." She teaches in the Mile High MFA at Regis University.

The Glassmaker

By: Tracy Chevalier.

Publisher: Viking, 396 pages, $32.