24 June 2009

Book Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus Sister Lucrezia had specified that her body not be touched after her death, except to be buried. But with the pestilence around, one can’t be too careful.... So it is that two of her fellow nuns discover a faked illness and a decidedly risque tattoo, neither of which they can explain, for neither of them know her story.

When her father brings a painter home with him to decorate the family chapel, Alessandra Cecchi sees her opportunity to learn more of the thing she loves most - art. Nearly fifteen and from a wealthy family, she doesn’t have long before such moments of freedom as she can snatch will be consumed by marriage. Even without a husband, her occasional strayings are likely to be curtailed. A new order has arrived in Florence, headed by the rabidly pious Girolamo Savonarola. Defying the Pope in order to rail against the opulence that flourished under the Medici, he establishes a network of soldiers and spies throughout the city. The most advantageous of marriages might not be enough protection when both parties have so much to hide.

At first glance, this looked fantastic. A female protagonist, history, and art. Better still: Italian history and Renaissance art, and the perpetrator of the Bonfire of the Vanities, the greatest crime against both. More intriguingly, early on the heroine showed signs of synesthesia (the cross-wiring of two of the senses, in this case hearing colours in sounds). Yet while it was a pleasant read, it was also easy to put down. I still can’t entirely identify why, and have concluded that it was a case of everything and nothing. There’s no one thing I can point to as marring the book; rather there were multiple things which alone might not be much but added up to an underwhelming read.

I couldn’t quite see the point of the prologue, and felt it gave away too much. A girl who’s attracted to an artist ends up with art on her body - it’s pretty obvious how that’s going to happen. It was certainly an effective means of grabbing my attention, but I have a vague memory of reading somewhere that needing an attention-grabbing prologue means Chapter 1 isn’t good enough. I liked Alessandra well enough - naturally I’d enjoy a heroine with a strong artistic bent - but she was a little too willful at times and I never felt really connected with her. Or anyone else, for that matter. It felt like the narration of someone who was merely describing events rather than living them; someone erecting a wall of fine words between herself and her past. And what was with the series of murders which were only mentioned in passing?

I kept going with it because of my interest in the period, and did learn a few things about Savonarola. But while the history might stick in my mind, the fictional aspects will, I suspect, be swiftly forgotten.

Rating: C+


Lezlie said...

I also thought this one was just OK. I really liked In the Company of the Courtesan though!


PS Savonarola fascinates me. I really want to read more about him.

fantaghiro23 said...

Loved your review because I, too, was underwhelmed by the book, and I said as much in my review.:)

Aarti said...

Great review! I read this one some time ago- I think a couple of years. And it's funny because I remember really enjoying it at the time, so that I got Dunant's next book in hardcover soon after it came out. But... now I can't remember this one at all! And I still haven't touched the other...

Amat Libris said...

Lezlie: In the Company of the Courtesan was in the library too, and I vacillated for a bit before choosing. Looks like I picked the wrong one!

Fantaghiro23: I'll have to look up your review.

Aarti: I think the only things I might remember about it are my mental images of the paintings!

Kailana said...

This book wasn't memorable to me at all. It was just okay. She has a new book coming out soon. I still haven't read In the Company of the Courtesan, but I think I own it... She is just an okay author for me, I guess.

Memory said...

I had pretty much the same reaction. I found it pretty readable, but it's only been a week or so since I finished it and it's already fading.

Passages to the Past said...

I have this one sitting on the shelf and I'll get to it one day! The fact that you didn't really care for the characters says a lot...if I don't care about them or what happens to them, why would I keep reading??

Thank you for the fantastic review!

Becca said...

I like your review. I have not read this one, but it is in my TBR pile and on a challenge list for me. I hope that I do not feel as underwhelmed by it as you. But thanks for the heads up! :)

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