Sarah Dunant''s gorgeous and mesmerizing novel, Birth of Venus, draws readers into a turbulent 15th-century Florence, a time when the lavish city, steeped in years of Medici family luxury, is suddenly besieged by plague, threat of invasion, and the righteous wrath of a fundamentalist monk. Dunant masterfully blends fact and fiction, seamlessly interweaving Florentine history with the coming-of-age story of a spirited 14-year-old girl. As Florence struggles in Savonarola''s grip, a serial killer stalks the streets, the French invaders creep closer, and young Alessandra Cecchi must surrender her "childish" dreams and navigate her way into womanhood. Readers are quickly seduced by the simplicity of her unconventional passions that are more artistic than domestic:
Dancing is one of the many things I should be good at that I am not. Unlike my sister. Plautilla can move across the floor like water and sing a stave of music like a song bird, while I, who can translate both Latin and Greek faster than she or my brothers can read it, have club feet on the dance floor and a voice like a crow. Though I swear if I were to paint the scale I could do it in a flash: shining gold leaf for the top notes falling through ochres and reds into hot purple and deepest blue.
Alessandra''s story, though central, is only one part of this multi-faceted and complex historical novel. Dunant paints a fascinating array of women onto her dark canvas, each representing the various fates of early Renaissance women: Alessandra''s lovely (if simple) sister Plautilla is interested only in marrying rich and presiding over a household; the brave Erila, Alessandra''s North African servant (and willing accomplice) has such a frank understanding of the limitations of her sex that she often escapes them; and Signora Cecchi, Alessandra''s beautiful but weary mother tries to encourage yet temper the passions of her wayward daughter.
A luminous and lush novel, The Birth of Venus, at its heart, is a mysterious and sensual story with razor-sharp teeth. Like Alessandra, Dunant has a painter''s eye--her writing is rich and evocative, luxuriating in colors and textures of the city, the people, and the art of 15th-century Florence. Reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier''s Girl with a Pearl Earring, but with sensual splashes of color and the occasional thrill of fear, Dunant''s novel is both exciting and enchanting. --Daphne Durham
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. The Birth of Venus is a tour de force, the first historical novel from one of Britain’s most innovative writers of literary suspense. It brings alive the history of Florence at its most dramatic period, telling a compulsively absorbing story of love, art, religion, and power through the passionate voice of Alessandra, a heroine with the same vibrancy of spirit as her beloved city.
From the Hardcover edition.
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