The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 412 pages, 2003

Rating: 7/10

Reason for Reading: I believe I saw an ad for it in the book section of Saturday’s Globe and Mail. I like to pick the section up once and a while and hunt for brand new (to me, at least) authors.

Synopsis: Alessandra Cecci is a fourteen-year-old surrounded by the vibrancy of life in Florence during the Renaissance, yet yet she finds herself frustrated because she is expected to be ladylike and either marry or join a nunnery. Neither sounds very appealing to Alessandra, who is determined to paint, a hobby she must keep hidden from parents, who see it as self-sabatoging the chance for a normal life. When a painter shows up to paint her father’s cathedral, she thinks she may have found the answer to her prayers, but with the turbulance of an upcoming war, things might not turn out the way she wants them to….

Why you should read this book: For the most part, Alessandra’s plight of repression in such a seemingly open culture will keep the pages turning to find out if she’ll get to follow her dreams, or if they’ll be struck down – either by love or by the expectations of society. It’s interesting to see the Renaissance, a time known for its high achievements, through the eyes of a girl forced to take a seat on the sidelines. Interesting enough if you like historical fiction, especially fiction that deals with women and art.

Why you should avoid this book: The ‘female painter in a period of repression’ theme has been done frequently in the past few years, and Dunant doesn’t really have anything new to add to the picture – there’s not enough of a spark to her writing to push her to the front of the pack. The ending is particularily flat, a letdown considering all of the possible turns the storyline could have taken. If endless ‘amazing’ coincidences drive you crazy when you read, you won’t be thrilled with how much happens to a girl stuck almost entirely indoors with her family. Certainly, fiction is largely based on coincidences (there’s not much of a story in going to the market and not bumping into anyone, or not finding something interesting), but this is a bit much – whenever Alessandra leaves the house, she manages to cross paths with an important historical figure. Another problem is all the talk of bodily functions. Yes, it’s common in historical fiction (for whatever reason), but a lot of authors’ writing on the subject will send your eyes rolling to the heavens, and unfortunately Dunant is one of them. Overall, just lacking the zest needed to be at the top of the genre.

Opening paragraph:

No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into the drafting of this observance. Under the billowing folds of their habits each nun wore a long cotton shift, a garment which they kept on always, even when they washed, so that it acted as a screen and partial drying cloth as well as a nightshirt. This shift they changed once a month (more in summer when the stagnant Tuscan air bathed them in sweat) and there were careful instructions as to correct procedure: how they should keep their eyes firmly fixed on the crucifix above their bed as they de-robed. If any did let their gaze stray downwards, the sin was a matter for the confessional and therefore not for history.

Fabulous quotes:

‘Alessandra, you should know your father has started talking to prospective husbands.’
I feel my stomach curdle at the words. ‘But how…I am not even bleeding yet!’
She frowned. ‘You are sure of that?’
‘How could you not know? Maria checks my laundry. It’s hardly a fact I could keep secret.’
‘Unlike other things,’ and her voice was quiet. I looked up. But there was no sign that she would go any further. ‘You know I have shielded you for a long time, Alessandra. I cannot go on doing so for ever.’

‘Even if I don’t have your talent, painter, I have your desire. You have to help me. Please.’
And I know he has understood. He does not laugh, or dismiss me. But what can he say? What would anyone say to me? I am so arrogant, even in my despair.

Also recommended: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier; The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland; Falling Angels Tracy Chevalier; The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.

Also by this author: In the Company of the Courtesan; Transgressions; Snow Storms in a Hot Climate; Mapping the Edge; Under My Skin; Fatlands; Birth Marks.

Fun tidbit: When asked about influential books on both her life and writing, Dunant listed a large number, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, The Bell by Iris Murdoch, and declared, “Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina made me wish to be married just so I could be unfaithful.”
© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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