Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus: A NovelBefore I bought The Birth of Venus, I had heard praises sung about it. Following other people’s advice I acquired it for my own collection thinking that with so many wonderful opinions circulating the readers’ world, I could not go wrong. Well…so very wrong I went after all.

The main story of  The Birth of Venus is interesting enough. It is a story of a young girl, Alessandra Cecchi, growing up in Florence at the end of the 15th century. Alessandra is a willful girl, who is determined to not go the way other women in her world do. She is intelligent, she loves art and painting and has no inclination to ever be a wife, a mother and a mistress of her own future house. She wants to be an artist instead. Such future, however, is not to be hers. She has the bad luck to live the best years of her life when Florence changes from the place where art is revered to the country ruled by devout Savonarola, who wages religious war against beauty, art and earthly pleasures, replacing it all with threats of hell, with torture and death dealt to everyone that does not succumb to the utmost religious devotion and asceticism. Alessandra gets married off to a man much older than herself, but also very understanding towards her independent and curious spirit. Of course, there is a reason why her husband would be so lenient and that is revealed soon enough. Alessandra, in the meantime, realizes that she loves another man, a mysterious painter hired by her father to paint the household’s chapel. I think that such plot promises a fabulous historical and romantic adventure for a reader. Sadly, it is not so.

If it weren’t for the shocking prologue, I would have stopped reading this book after the first 100 pages. Because of the mysterious death of a nun and a tattoo of a serpent on her body described in the first seven pages, I kept trudging through The Birth of Venus until the end. Ms. Dunant is undoubtedly very knowledgeable about the history of Florence and its art. I am not so sure about her knowledge of writing a good historical fiction. The writing is tedious and many times verging on hopelessly boring. Honestly, if I wanted to read a detailed description of any historical period, I would reach for a non-fiction book. Having heard and read so many good opinions of The Birth of Venus, I was sorely disappointed. There was hardly any excitement, no poignancy and the tone is certainly not light. And when I finally got to the long-awaited ending, all I could think was, “Huh?, That’s it?”. It was completely anti-climactic and as I write this review I am wondering if I missed something because I still have no clue why the book was titled The Birth of Venus.

* Since reading The Birth of Venus, I decided to give Ms. Dunant another chance and read her Sacred Hearts. I am glad that I did because it was a lot better (even if not yet perfect).