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Sarah Dunant – The Birth of Venus

January 25, 2008

11. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (2003)

Length: 403 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 22 January 2008
Finished: 25 January 2008

Summary: Alessandra, youngest daughter of a prosperous Florentine cloth merchant, is possessed of a talent for painting, a desire for education and independence, and a willful streak, all in the late 1400s, when none of these things were considered proper for a woman. Her father brings a young painter to the house to decorate the family chapel, and Alessandra is immediately drawn to him, although she is soon to be married into a life not of her choosing. Meanwhile, the city around them boils with the hellfire preachings of the zealot monk Savanrola, who rails against the worldly temptations of both art and women.

Review: An interesting and absorbing piece of historical fiction. The early chapters didn’t suck me in right away, but were interesting enough to keep me coming back, and once the story got going, 100 pages could zip by without me noticing. The characters for the most part are well-drawn, and the world they move through is evocatively presented – slices of 15th century Florence absolutely come alive, although the view was somewhat limited by our narrator’s position and sex.

The main issue I had with this book is that it suffered from what I am hereby dubbing as “Ayla Syndrome” (after the Earth’s Children books by Jean Auel). It’s a tendency of a lot of historical fiction to want to relate its main character (especially if she’s female) to every important person, object, and event of the time period, no matter how unlikely. Readers of historical fiction know that some amount of this comes with the genre – people who have no influence on historical events just don’t make particularly interesting narrators – but I thought that this book had one too many coincidences to relate its narrator to famous events and people without the basis of historical evidence to make it credible. There were also a few other plot elements I thought didn’t work as well as they should have. Alessandra’s animosity with her brother Tomaso was critical to the story, but it never came across as more than garden-variety sibling sparring. Similarly, the Serpent symbolism was carried throughout the book, but without ever being worked in as well as it could have been. Finally, the plot could have used a little more oomph; for all of the interesting political and religious machinations going on around her, Alessandra’s story wound up seeming slightly light on the drama.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book; I did, quite a bit. It’s a very engrossing read, there were just some elements that just didn’t work for me the way they were supposed to. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Well-written but fairly typical historical fiction, but if that’s the flavor of slightly fluffy escapist reading you’re after, it’s definitely a worthwhile pick.

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  • p. 19: “‘My lady Plautilla, it’s here. The marriage cassone has arrived.’” – a large Italian chest of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, usually highly ornamented.
  • p. 188: “I followed her out of the crowd and around the side of the cathedral until we found a door where the river of people was less grand but moving with such force that it as impossible for the vergers at the entrance to police everyone surging inside.” – one who takes care of the interior of a church and acts as an attendant during ceremonies.
  • p. 207: “‘Though I wish Eve had saved us some of the agony of birthing. You would not believe the pain. I think it must be worse than the strappado.’” – an old form of punishment or torture in which the victim, with arms bound behind, was raised from the ground by a rope fastened to the wrists, abruptly released, then arrested with a painful jerk just before reaching the ground.
  • p. 223: “Close by was a porphyry slab for grinding, and two generous panels of wood ready for sizing and priming and the first strokes of the paint.” – a very hard rock, anciently quarried in Egypt, having a dark, purplish-red groundmass containing small crystals of feldspar.
  • p. 367: “The job of conversa a post designed specifically for slaves, was traditionally a menial one – serving the servers of God – but since ours was not a traditional nunnery I paid for her release and she soon created another role for herself; doing errands, moving gossip, and runnin a postal service for the nuns between the convent and the local town (with which we had a lively trade of forbidden luxuries) in a way that earned her a tidy fortune.” – individuals from the lower classes who acted as servants and laborers in a monastery or convent.
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