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Sarah Dunant – In the Company of the Courtesan

May 10, 2010

48. In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant (2006)

Read By: Stephen Hoye
Length: 13h 57min (384 pages)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 05 April 2010
Finished: 28 April 2010

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? It had been a while since I’d read some straight-up historical fiction, and I enjoyed Sarah Dunant’s other books, so…

It’s hard out there for
a pimp… especially if
he’s also a dwarf.

Summary: In the Company of the Courtesan is the second of Sarah Dunant’s triad of works about the fate of women in Renaissance Italy. Options available to young women were limited, they could either become wives (The Birth of Venus), nuns (Sacred Hearts), or whores. This book explores the life of this last group of women by following the fate of Fiametta Bianchini, once the most famous courtesan in Rome, as seen through the eyes of Bucino Teodoldo, a dwarf who is her companion and business manager. The pair of them must flee Rome following the sack of the city in 1527, and they return to Fiametta’s childhood home of Venice bruised, scarred, shorn, and with only a tiny handful of jewels they were able to smuggle out of Rome. Their only hope for survival is to get Fiametta established as a high-class courtesan once again, a task that will take all of their skills, charms, and wiles. For beauty is fleeting, tastes are fickle, reputations are tenuous, and the life of a prostitute is never easy in a city where even the most private sins can become public business.

Review: This is an odd book in that, while I quite enjoyed it and found it very absorbing, I can’t exactly say why. It wasn’t the characters; Bucino is interesting, and a good choice for a narrator, but I found Fiametta rather tiresome, especially in the last third or so of the book. It wasn’t a burning desire to find out what would happen; the story certainly wasn’t boring, but it was not particularly plot-driven either, and there really isn’t one through-line of story that carries from beginning to end. The setting was certainly well-done – Dunant excels, as always, at bringing historical Italy to life from a unique perspective – but a masterful setting isn’t enough to keep me coming back for more. I think what I enjoyed most was the interesting way Dunant wove her themes throughout the story, packing in a heavy dose of musings on the nature of beauty and lust and sex and love and religion and sin without ever letting her writing get bogged down by philosophical musings. I’ve always enjoyed questions of that nature, and the courtesans of Renaissance Italy embody so many of these issues that it was fascinating to watch the way they might play out. Choosing Bucino as a narrator was an inspired move; it allowed Dunant to tell a story about the life of the courtesan while still keeping the focus off of the salacious details in the bedroom, and his own deformity made the contrasts to his mistress all the more stark. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I enjoyed this one more than The Birth of Venus but not quite as much as Sacred Hearts; regardless, all three are vividly-drawn works of historical fiction told from a unique perspective, and should appeal to most readers of the genre.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: An Adventure in Reading, Books for Breakfast, Lotus Reads
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.

Cover Thoughts: It’s a copy of The Venus of Urbino by Titian, carefully cropped not to show any naughty bits. The painting actually plays a role in the story, so that’s a nice touch.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2010 8:36 am

    It sounds like everything came together to create a wonderful book!

  2. May 10, 2010 10:04 am

    Ooh! The setting sounds good!

    • May 12, 2010 10:09 am

      Ladytink – Dunant is very good at evoking her setting, for sure.

  3. May 10, 2010 10:05 am

    I haven’t read any of Sarah Dunant’s books before, but I think I’m going to check them out now. I’m always up for a good historical fiction. Now to decide which one I should read first…

    • May 12, 2010 10:09 am

      toothy – I think Sacred Hearts was my favorite, but they’re all pretty solidly enjoyable.

  4. May 10, 2010 12:01 pm

    I have this on my shelves somewhere I think, glad to know it lives up to her other two books. Interesting that her three books cover wife, nun, whore, I never noticed that before.

    • May 12, 2010 10:11 am

      Jen – I didn’t come up with the wife/nun/whore thing on my own; I don’t remember if I saw it in an interview or another review or the promotional stuff for Sacred Hearts or where, but it made enough sense to me that I adopted it.

  5. May 10, 2010 2:45 pm

    I think this is actually my least favorite of Sarah Dunant’s three historicals. I liked it but for some reason not as much as you.

    I never thought of these three books as connected but I like it! It really works.

    • May 12, 2010 10:13 am

      Meghan – Well, since I’m not entirely sure why I did like it so much, especially since books without a clear through-plot usually annoy me, I can understand why others didn’t like it as much. Which one is your favorite?

  6. jessica permalink
    August 11, 2010 4:14 am

    Each work of Sarah Dunant is wonderful.Yet, for me, because fonding of Florence and art, I adore The Birth of Venus most. Till now Becoming a girl wise like Alessandra is still my dream.:)

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