Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Birth of Venus, Sarah Dunant

Title: The Birth of Venus
Author: Sarah Dunant
Pages: 394
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
What you'll love: Rich storytelling, great plot twists
What will bug you: Imagining yourself in the time period

I was in the teacher's room making photocopies when a coworker was talking about The Birth of Venus. It sounded so intriguing that I couldn't stop myself from asking her more about it, and then asking if I could borrow it! I was hooked from the first chapter - actually, I was hooked from the moment Carol (aforementioned coworker) retold the first chapter to the ladies in the teacher's room. I won't spoil it for you, but trust me, you'll be completely drawn in from the start.

The story opens with a prologue - Sister Lucrezia has died. The rest of the story (divided into four parts) is "The Testament of Sister Lucrezia". Before she was Sister Lucrezia, her name was Alessandra Cecchi, a young girl of fifteen living in Florence. Alessandra's wealthy father has brought a young painter into their home to paint a fresco on the chapel walls in the family's palazzo. Alessandra is a true child of the Renaissance -
she excels in her studies, and her art.

As political events unfold in the city, Alessandra's parents marry her off to a wealthy, much older man. The city is thrown into turmoil as the rule of the Medicis, with their love of art and learning is being threatened by Savonarola - a fundamentalist monk. As the city and its culture is threatened by increasing violence, Alessandra makes the journey from girl to woman, taking control of her true self.

I thought this book was absolutely fantastic for many reasons. First, I loved all the talk of art. Just last week (has it only been a week ago???) my Mother and I visited the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. I had just started this story, and loved every minute of our trip to the MFA. It's amazing being able to get up close to a painting and see the brush strokes of the artist. The talent it takes to create these beautiful creations is such an amazing gift.

I cannot imagine growing up in Alessandra's time, when women are not encouraged to pursue this avenue. I am particularly attracted to this novel, not only because it's a "coming of age" story, but because it is about a woman who goes against the grain. I love Alessandra. She is a little bit of a smart ass, speaks her mind, and is passionate about learning and art. What an amazing character!

My point of conflict was about her husband. I really can't say much without ruining some of the many plot twists in this story, but I will say this. I think he thought he was doing the
right thing by marrying Alessandra.

The story of political unrest throughout the novel was well done, and very interesting. It would be scary to me to be living in a place where the ruler claimed to have a direct communication with God. With the wrong person in that role (as Savonarola certainly was) the results could be disastrous.

The plot twists. There were a handful, and they were fantastic. A couple of them I saw coming, and some I did not. I love it when that happens!!! Here's a little teaser for you... the thing the nuns discover in the first chapter? You'll never guess how that comes to pass. :)

Lastly, the writing. Some books just make me feel immersed in the scenery. This is one of them. There is a familiarity with the characters that makes you feel like you are walking beside them on the streets of Florence. Reading it was like stepping back in time - but able to return to a land where women have choices and value.

Can you guess my rating?


  1. Since you mentioned "all the talk of art" (which I loved too!!), I thought I would recommend to you two other books that I loved partly for the same reason. Have you read Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire? I think you would give both of those books 5 wine glasses. I know I would, anyway!

    Speaking of Maguire--I've read at least three of his books, and I think Ugly Stepsister is my favorite, and Wicked my second favorite. I love his unique treatment of fairytales.

  2. Oooh, I read "Girl With A Pearl Earring" too and loved it! I have not tried "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" though. Funny, I was checking it out in a bookstore just last week. I'll have to pick it up. I wasn't sure anything could stand up to "Wicked" - but I guess I should go for it!