Sarah Dunant – In the Company of the Courtesan
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.
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.