Kalogridis frames a volatile period of Spanish history within the perspective of beautiful young Marisol Garcia, daughter of a converso mother, Magdalena, and an “old” Christian, don Diego. She is sheltered by her parents from religious controversy, the family outwardly Christian even though Magdalena practices Judaism in secret. Though the child watches her mother perform Friday night religious rituals, she doesn’t understand the ramification of Magdalena’s actions. Why should she, when her mother spends hours painting the fine details of religious statues and attends Sunday services with her family?
As Marisol grows up and begins to question her mother’s religious observances, a small rift forms between mother and daughter. Yet Marisol is thinking of her own future with long-time childhood love, Antonio, who has gone away to study. She has always imagined herself married to Antonio and is confused when his letters stop, later hurt, as she believes he has forgotten about her. With the arrival of Dominican monks and a sheaf of important documents read in the town square announcing the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition, Marisol’s concerns about Antonio are swallowed by cascading events that turn an idyllic world into a nightmare.
In a series of public proclamations, townspeople are informed that the city will be purged of “Christ-killers”--crypto-Jews--and that anyone with suspicions may come forward under the cloak of anonymity. Before she can comprehend the meaning of this new state of affairs, a tragedy strikes Marisol’s family, her grief exacerbated by her father’s sudden demand that she marry a powerful neighbor and agent of the Inquisition, Gabriel Hojeda. Brother of Fray Alonso Hojeda, one of the ambitious monks encouraging the purge of Jews from the city, Gabriel is the civil lawyer for the trials, an obsessive man who has long coveted Marisol, jealously watching her relationship with Antonio flourish.
Between an unwelcome marriage, the threats of her new husband’s family to reveal her mother’s secret practices and her father’s imminent arrest, Marisol has no time to consider the sequence of terrible events or her father’s motive in making such a rash decision. Coming face to face with Antonio through Gabriel’s machinations and catching the eye of the visiting Queen Isabella, Marisol is overwhelmed, slowly awakening to the religious, financial and political realities of the world around her. Still cloaked in the naiveté of her youth, it is not easy for Marisol to understand these revelations, yet she is forced to act quickly in order to survive.
While her protagonist’s background builds slowly through childhood dreams and an imagined future—as do the prejudices and political ambitions that breed the madness of the Inquisition—Marisol’s worldly experience accelerates into frantic activity with the advent of the Inquisition, her forced marriage and the realization that betrayal is everywhere and loyalty nowhere. The great events of a lifetime, marriage, death, persecution and banishment baffle a young woman unprepared for the future, but the spirit bred of loving parents inspires Marisol to overcome her limitations and embrace her heritage.