Saturday 12 February 2011

Book Review: Sarah Dunant - The Birth of Venus

I picked this book up at a summer boot fair and saved it for my winter stash when all I want to do is curl up in bed and read. So it being winter and grey and wet outside I thought this was as good a time as any to give it a try.

The book is set in Renaissance Florence, home to the greatest artists of the time. Every chapel and church is decorated with splendid art and every wealthy resident of the city wants to become a patron. As decadent and cultured as the city is, it is still a man’s world and a “decent” woman’s place is in the kitchen and bedroom, her sole aim to marry well and produce sons.

In such a world we find Alessandra, the youngest daughter of a rich textile merchant and his elegant wife. 15-year old Alessandra is enamoured by the art in the city around her and loves to paint and draw. As she grows older, her family deem these activities as unsuitable for a young woman, leading her to pursue her passion in secret.

Alessandra’s father is keen to seal his status as one of the venerable men of Florence by having the chapel in his courtyard painted with art. He brings home a shy young artist who has been brought up in a community of Abbots. The young man and Alessandra are immediately drawn to each other but find themselves in conflict due to their personalities: his shy aloofness and her abruptness and awkwardness.

Before long, Alessandra’s marriage is arranged to a handsome, cultured, older man – seemingly a wonderful match, but on her marriage night Alessandra finds things are not as they seem and life for her takes a strange twist. At the same time, Florence is under the spell of the fiery monk Savonarola and his followers who wish to purge Florence of its most powerful family, the Medici and of its decadence and bring about an era of severity and austerity. Savonarola barely gathers momentum, the wrath of the Pope threatening to come down on him, when the King of France marches on the city and there is further trouble for Alessandra and her family to content with.

The book is part history, part romance. The historical details are fascinating and the romance convincing if a little slow to get going. In between Alessandra’s romance and marriage and the turmoil of the city, there is a mystery thriller, with gory dead bodies turning up around the city throughout the book

This is an engaging and lively book wih a satisfying ending. The heroine is very human (if a little dense at times, but understandable considering the cloistered nature of woman’s lives at the time) and brings a street-level perspective to events that shape history. The story had me engrossed throughout and it’s sense of realism – the status of women, the treatment of slaves and the glimpses of poverty through the decadence made the book kept me interested.

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