Book Review: The Birth of Venus

As much as I love historical fiction, and drawn as I am to books about art and artists, how in the world did I never before read this author?  The good news is that now that I have found Sarah Dunant I have a feast of her books to consume.  And consume them, I will. 

The Birth of Venus was published in 2003 by Random House, and is 391 pages.  It tells the story of Alessandra Cecci–the spirited, intelligent, and artistic daughter of a 15th century Florentine merchant–torn between love and duty.  Her marriage to a man many years her senior (and her opposite in many other ways), and her infatuation with a troubled painter from Northern Europe, both serve to liberate and confine her in their complexities.  Set against the political and religious turmoil of the time, The Birth of Venus, provides a fascinating window to one family’s struggles. 

What I most loved about the novel was the character of Alessandra.  She is captured perfectly.  In her infatuation with the painter: “I felt a small explosion of fire somewhere inside me.”  (p 29)  Her difficult relationship with her siblings: “I cannot pinch you as I used to.  You might go into labor and I could not bear your screams.  But once your baby is born I can pinch it with impunity, since it will be years until it can blame me.” (p 102)  Her great capacity for love: “I have heard it said that in heaven even the substance of matter is changed by the light of God, so that you can look through solid things to see what lies beyond.  As the light turned to dusk in my cell that night, I think I could for that moment see through his body to the very soul of him.” (p 378.)  And on….

At its best, historical fiction illuminates unknown times and places in history, while entertaining the reader.  I knew little about the Medici state versus the religious fervor of the time. I didn’t know that there were African slaves in Florence at the time.  The references to art in the book sent me searching around the internet to find out more about the painters mentioned.  It sparked my imagination.

The Birth of Venus is sexually and violently graphic–but not gratuitous.  The writing style is Tracy Chevalier (Girl With the Pearl Earring) meets Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl.)  Dunant just published a novel, Sacred Hearts, and has another historical novel, In The Company of the Courtesan.  I look forward to reading them both.

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