Thursday, July 10, 2008

Review of The Birth of Venus

Welcome to the latest installment of "the books I've borrowed from friends or the library instead of spending money on them on Amazon in order to help me save money for the wedding."

This particular book was lent to me by a friend. You may recall that I read In the Company of the Courtesan by the same author (and from the same friend!) and had mixed feelings about it.

I figured out what was missing from the other book: passion. The author told me how the dwarf was feeling, but as I learned from one of my college professors, "show, don't tell." There was a lot of telling and very little showing, which meant that the book didn't resonate with me emotionally at all, and felt hollow.

In The Birth of Venus, on the other hand, the author did a much better job. Perhaps it's that she could imagine being a rebellious teenage girl better than being a middle-aged dwarf?

The novel, which is set in Florence, is told from the perspective of a 14-year old merchant's daughter who has no desire to follow the typical path of her peers: marry and have children. Instead, she argues about philosophy, learns Latin and Greek, and other languages, and spends much of her time drawing (she is not allowed paints, but painting is what she most longs to learn to do). Her father brings home a painter to work on their chapel, and Alessandra is of course fascinated by him. She corners him several times, risking getting caught by her parents or the servants, and tries to get him to teach her how to paint and draw.

The book is set in the 15th Century. Throughout the course of Alessandra's narrative, the city is slowly taken over by a monk who decries the sinfulness, vanity, and pride of the city. Women are expected to stay at home, and households are required to give up valuable vanity items to be burned, because they are ungodly. The city is also stricken by a plague, an invasion by the French, and a serial killer. It's quite a busy little plot! In the meantime Alessandra concedes that she must be married in order to be protected from either being sent to a nunnery or targeted by the French invaders. What she doesn't realize, until her wedding night, is that she has been married off to her brother's middle-aged lover. She feels horribly betrayed, and it worsens her already terrible relationship with her brother. She also ends up having an affair with her father's chapel painter, which of course you could see coming. What I didn't understand was why her husband got so upset--he did say she could take her own pleasure so long as she was discreet. She wasn't so discreet, but what 14-year-old would be? I could see wanting to ensure that your heir was actually your child, I guess. Still, it was odd since he was shagging her brother all the time.

The novel is enlivened mostly by the relationships between the women--Alessandra struggling to understand her sister, Alessandra enlisting her slave, Erila in helping her obtain painting supplies, and especially Alessandra talking to her mother about her desires for life. What Alessandra doesn't see until later in the novel is that her bold, headstrong, intelligent nature comes directly from her mother, who has tamed it in order to fit in with society. It was kind of reminiscent of Little Women (like Jo and her mother). There's an interesting twist where Alessandra figures out that her birth father and the man she was raised by are not the same people...infidelity apparently also runs in the family!

The other thing I enjoyed about the novel was all the descriptions of the art and artists of the era. Alessandra and her husband discuss politics and art as a matter of course, making it (almost) the perfect marriage for her.

The book ends with Alessandra's husband faking his death and running off with her brother. Alessandra and her child (the painter's daughter) go into an unusual convent where the nuns are allowed tremendous freedoms. Alessandra spends her time painting the convent's chapel and raising her daughter. Of course the painter looks her up, whereupon they hook up in her cell! I found that a little unbelievable, actually. Anyway, he stays around and helps paint the chapel, and finally he leaves, and she sends their daughter with him. There's also an interesting part where she tattoos a snake on her body after the painter put it on her with paint. Erila helps her get the needles and ink to make it permanent.
She then writes her memoirs and then when the convent is taken over by stricter hands in her old age, decides to kill herself with Erila's help.

So, some strange twists, and a very busy plot, but it didn't feel too convoluted as I read, and I found Alessandra an enjoyable narrator. The language was lovely, also. I'm not sure I'll check out the author's other work, but I'm glad I read this one. I'm also curious about the painter's real identity--he is only ever known as "the painter" and Amazon seems to hint that his character is supposed to be a famous painter from history. Certainly the author doesn't hesitate to weave in characters from history, so I wonder why this mystery wasn't revealed? I'll have to Google it.

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