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Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Part of my meanderings around the village’s social hot spots last night (aka other people’s living rooms) involved dropping in on my buyers to see what was going on with them.  Unfortunately they haven’t had any offers yet, which leaves me with the somewhat stressful prospect of having to go through showing my house all over again.  Especially as my vendor has found somewhere she would like to move to and so would like to get the chain on the road again.

I’m really hoping that my buyers get an offer before the deadline we gave them comes up.

Apart from that minor cloud, I’ve generally been having a good time, as we broke up for the summer holidays last week.  During the holidays, I work half days, which means that I can pack in exercise, baking, reading, writing, cleaning and everything that is just a bit too much during term time.  Oh, also answering surveys in return for Amazon vouchers.  Every so often, I am asked questions about what groceries I have bought.  The survey apologises in advance for the strangeness of some of the questions, explaining that they always pose the same questions, but the products chosen are randomly picked.  This week they were interested in my views on potatoes.  (“Which of these words best describe your emotions as you bought potatoes: Excited/Delighted/Suspicious/Angry/Swindled etc etc”.   I chose “Pleased”.)

It would be nice if life could be permanently part time on full time pay 🙂

On the day we broke up, I indulged in a late night reading of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant.

This is the story of the daughter of a cloth merchant in Renaissance Florence, fifteen year old Alessandra, who has a talent for both drawing and rebellion.

The book begins with the most fabulous opening chapter, set in a nunnery.  There’s an atmosphere of tense repression that almost squeezes the breath out of you as you read it, culminating in one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever come across in a book and I’m pretty difficult to surprise!

After this begins the story proper.  It’s set against the backdrop of the death of Laurence de Medici (“the Magnificent”) and the subsequent rise of the preacher Savonarola in the ensuing power vacuum.  Political unrest makes life even more uncertain than it normally is for girls of a marriageable age.  Alessandra is an independent and modern heroine (is there any other type?) who has to decide whether she should marry for security, even though this goes against her instincts.  What will become of her artistic talent when there is no “proper” outlet by which a woman can express this?

Dunant does a really good job of capturing the danger of life at the time, caught between two extremes, with the ever present prospect of imprisonment and torture for those finding themselves on the wrong side of authority.  Although I’ve never had any interest in Italian history, I was prompted by the exciting storyline to do a bit of further research.  It seems that Dunant paints Savonarola in a more fundamentalist light than most historians, but I found it interesting to see her playing around with the points of view, and I imagined this view as reflecting the sympathies of Alessandra’s family and their friends.  She also makes a good attempt at using the characters’ actions to explain the way societal currents ran.

What I found less convincing was the character of Alessandra herself – I felt sceptical that a girl with her upbringing would have it in her to reject so many of tenets that others (such as her sister) took for granted, and have them replaced with so many sympathies that would directly translate to twenty-first century ones.  It felt as if the potential of exploring what it was really like for a fifteen year old girl in those times had been missed, and I couldn’t help comparing the way the character was written with, say, Sarah Waters’ characters, who manage to be independent and unconventional, but in a more subtle and convincing way that leaves you with the feeling that you’ve gained an insight into what things were really like for women living at that time.

Other aspects of the book also got me interested in researching the history of the nunnery as an all-female communal space where women did not need men for survival – it seems that this was type of set up indeed a minor phenomenon at a certain point in the past.

I was also really, really moved by the description of the mother-daughter bond and the realities of happened to these bonds in patriarchal societies, where they were not valued.

This was a complex book, meshing personal and political themes in a satisfying manner.  I admired the research that had gone into it, even though I could see that some artistic licence was applied.  This was especially true of the ending, which went bonkers in a way that reminded me of my all night reading of the Da Vinci code many years ago.   Much better written than the Da Vinci code, of course, but addictive in the same way all the same.




  1. Jennifer

    This sounds like something I would like. Oh Dan Brown – a rich man who cannot write himself out of a paper bag!

  2. You review in such a fair and intelligent way– if I ran the world, I would definitely appoint you “THE book reviewer.”

    My tongue is only slightly in cheek. If life was fair, you’d get to earn your living by writing book reviews. Unfortunately, (or on the other hand, perhaps fortunately) we don’t get what we deserve.

    • Thank you 🙂

      Hope it comes across as fair. I try not to be too negative as there are usually lots of good points in books that I read, but sometimes it’s more interesting to speculate on things that I felt didn’t work – I feel these can be equally instructive

  3. It would be nice if life could be permanently part time on full time pay 🙂

    Oh, yes. That would be very nice.

  4. Sounds like quite a book Denise, glad you enjoyed it. I’m constantly impressed by your reading efforts!

    Sorry to hear about your buyers not having an offer yet. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that things start moving forward asap 🙂

  5. The book sounds good. I think you should answer the surveys with a more creative approach. I felt swindled by the spuds sounds more interesting than pleased. It might jazz the results up a bit too. I felt paranoia when buying my last pint of milk. I felt euphoric when choosing my last cabbage. Anything for a voucher.

  6. I enjoyed this and the other Italian based books that Dunant has written but really ran foul of her last novel, ‘Blood and Beauty’ which is about the Borgias. Have you read this and if so, what did you think?

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