Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including Italian Fever and Mary Reilly. Very much taken by the frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the author has fashioned a rigorous, spare, and unsentimental glimpse of the patron saint of animals and ecologists. Martin reveres Francis but confesses to be neither Catholic nor "particularly religious."

This biography vividly conveys the harshness of the saint who began life as a pampered son of a rich merchant and ended his days unswervingly loyal to his ideal of poverty. Mirroring the rhythm of early hagiographies, which move backwards in time, Martin starts with Francis's demise and makes it clear from the outset that she has no intention of shielding the reader from the distressing aspects of life and death in medieval times. Later, the author quotes the saint: "You cannot tell what degree of patience and humility a servant of God has about him as long as he has been having his way." What a contrast to our culture, which is predicated upon the idea that success and happiness is the result of getting our own way.

Martin looks at the reality of Francis's path of service: "He preferred to live as an animal lives, rising with the sun, walking around all day looking for food, socializing with his own kind, sleeping on the ground with a stone for his pillow." No wonder members of his own order wanted to change things around.

We are plunged into the formative events of Francis's life including his meeting with an Egyptian sultan, his encounter with the pope, his spiritual bonding with Clare, and his life-shaking rendezvous with a leper. Martin stays with this always surprising saint and in one sentence swoops into the very heart of his life as a work of art: "He was a great success because he determined to be, in the world's eye, a perfect failure."