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Book Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (3/5)

17 Jan

I grabbed this book because I needed something in the 1300-1499 time period for my 2022 When Are You Reading? Challenge. This time period is usually one of the most challenging for me to find a book so I was happy to find anything. I might have to stick with this author because it looks like she’s written a number of books set during the Renaissance.

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Cover image via Amazon

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Summary from Amazon:

Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family’s Florentine palazzo. A child of the Renaissance, with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the painter’s abilities.

But their burgeoning relationship is interrupted when Alessandra’s parents arrange her marriage to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, Florence is changing, increasingly subject to the growing suppression imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who is seizing religious and political control. Alessandra and her native city are caught between the Medici state, with its love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art, and the hellfire preaching and increasing violence of Savonarola’s reactionary followers. Played out against this turbulent backdrop, Alessandra’s married life is a misery, except for the surprising freedom it allows her to pursue her powerful attraction to the young painter and his art.

There wasn’t a lot in this book that really blew me away. I think it was a bit long for the story it told. The mystery around the painter was a bit drawn out. I felt the story was very back-half heavy. A lot of the set up at the beginning didn’t pay off for me. I did enjoy insights on life in Renaissance Florence and how quickly the city changed. I visited the city once and it was easy to picture Alessandra walking those streets and the churches she visited.

There were two characters that seemed unreal to me. The first was Luca, her brother. I didn’t gather from their banter before just how deep seeded his dislike for his sister was. Once she was married, it seemed to grow out of nowhere and it left me feeling like I’d missed something. The second was the painter. I’ve never encountered someone so reclusive so it was hard for me to picture him. It was made even more difficult when he returns at the end and is so socially adjusted, seemingly out of no where after years and years of being a hermit. The swing just seemed like too much.

Aurelia was a great add to this story. Because she was Black, her experiences were very different from Alessandra and it gave a great layer to the book that it would have lacked without her. She is a fierce woman and helped move the plot forward more than once. I’m glad she stayed in the story until the very end.

Alessandra’s independence and desire to be a painter made her more relatable to a modern audience. A lot of the other aspects of her life, like marriage at a young age and her high-class life, would have made her seen untouchable by today’s women. Her older sister carried this role out for the reader. For me, that was emphasized when she sent her child off with a wet nurse for a year at a time. Without Alessandra’s desire to fight the constraints of her time period, she would have been very difficult to like.

Sarah Dunant Image via the author’s website

I felt the first half of the book was unbearably slow and the second half was paced much better. There was a lot done to lay the groundwork for the Painter and Alessandra’s changes of fortune and I think it was a bit overdone. Once she got married, the action took off quickly. The changes to the city were well explained and how that affected the main characters was interesting and kept my attention.

There were two parts of this book that I disliked. One was the relationship between Alessandra and her brother, Tomaso. I thought they were just having a sibling rivalry, nothing major or spiteful, just not getting along. And then after Alessandra’s marriage, I thought I must have missed something. His ribbing turned rude and mean and the secrets he kept from here were horrible. It seemed that things were not well explained at first or that his malice grew with her marriage in a way I didn’t really comprehend. The second thing that I disliked was the change in the painter when he returned at the end. It was such a stark change, into an accomplished gentleman, that I got mad. His quirks were part of what made him interesting so having him return as a very well-adjusted and accomplished man was really out of place and took me away from the story.

My audiobook was narrated by Kathe Mazur. I thought she did well with Alessandra’s blossoming voice. She balanced Aurelia’s voice as that of an older and more mature woman, giving them slightly different timbres. She didn’t do much for males voices in this story, but it didn’t bother me.

We learn a lot about Alessandra’s mother as the book goes on. There are three generations of women in this book who are swayed by their hearts and follow their passions. We see how it changes for each of them. Alessandra’s mother kept quiet and seemed to think her daughter’s willfulness was a reflection of her sins. I think it was a reflection of her, sharing the same desire to stand out. Alessandra’s daughter shares her talents, though it’s too early to know if she’ll be as stubborn as her mother. I liked seeing the traits mothers passed to daughters in this story and I thought it was well done.

Writer’s Takeaway: The pacing of this book didn’t work for me. The set up of Florence at the time was too much backstory for me. It had a massive affect on the plot, so some was necessary, but I felt a little buried in it early on. It’s hard when you’re unsure how much background the reader will have on the time period to assume anything. I think Dunant was right not to assume more than she did, but I think she went into too much detail about things that ended up not mattering.

I liked the book well enough but it didn’t blow me away. Three out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1300-1499 time period of the 2022 When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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