Wednesday, September 19, 2012
TBR Day. The Birth of Venus / Sarah Dunant. 2003
I'm bending the rules a little this month. This book was not in my personal TBR pile. It was a library book I'd picked up at the urging of my QBFFs who had read and loved this book. Since they often read the romances I recommend to them, it seemed only fair to follow up on a rec from them. It was almost due and I needed a non-romance for this month, so I decided to write about Sarah Dunant's rich historical novel set in Florence during the turbulent 1490s.
Dunant is apparently well-known for her suspense novels, including a series of crime novels with the recurring character, Hannah Wolfe. The Birth of Venus was her first historical novel. She's since gone on to write a few more. At any rate, I found this to be a very interesting novel, full of details about the art and politics of Florence during a time when a monk named Savonarola temporarily wrested power from the Medicis and preached a very puritanical gospel. He defied the Pope and claimed to have visions that would establish Florence as the New Jerusalem, a newer and more holy center for the Christian Church.
The book's narrator and central character is Alessandra, a young women who is the youngest daughter of a moderately wealthy cloth merchant. She is intellectually brilliant, curious about everything, and a gifted artist. But as a young woman she is suited only for marriage and child-bearing. Her parents arrange a marriage for her with a much older man, who, it turns out, has very little interest in her. Her marriage ends up giving her a degree of unexpected freedom and an opportunity to develop a relationship with a painter. Alessandra grows into womanhood as the Florence she knew as a child undergoes massive changes.
I found the book a bit slow going at first, as various threads are introduced. But the pace really picked up after Alessandra's marriage and I was glad I stuck with this. The book opened a world that I am not all that familiar with, and I enjoyed learning more about medieval Florence. One thing that struck me was how the puritanical messages preached by Savonarola reminded me of today's War on Women. While not really the same, the truth is that there are parallels to the ways religion was/is used to control women. The book is also full of references to art, philosophy, politics, and sex. It's amazingly full, yet very readable.
For a change of pace, this was a good choice.