Random House. 2004. 403 pgs with book club questions.
Other books I’ve read by Sarah Dunant: none, so far. In the Company of the Courtesan looks promising!
This was a very good historical fiction novel, that missed the mark of excellence — much like the main character’s evaluation of her own fresco painting: “…one might say it was the work of an…artist…who did her best and deserves to be remembered as much for her enthusiasm as for her achievement.” (pg. 391). It left me frustrated because it could have been really fantastic, but at the end it brought me back down to earth with a let-down.
There was a lot that worked well in the novel. Dunant’s prose is matchless; there is never a false or awkward phrasing anywhere. I hate when authors try to recreate “authentic” historical speech patterns and phrases and Dunant doesn’t. The characters are truly wonderful: even the minor characters down to a simple-minded kitchen maid who plays a crucial role are fully formed. Villains are understandable and authentic. As for plot, I don’t think you could have a more fascinating historical backdrop than Florence at the end of the 1400’s during the waning of Medici power and the ascendency and fall of the dictator-friar, Savonarola.
So, what about the plot? The main character, Alessandra Cecchi is a pampered and spoiled daughter of a newly-wealthy cloth merchant. But Alessandra has a secret. Coltish and a little awkward, Alessandra was educated with her brothers (one a dolt, the other a fop — more on that in a minute) so as a result her sharp mind and sharper tongue openly revolts against her fate to be a baby-breeding doll-wife of some wealthy man. Alessandra’s secret passion is art and she hungers to be part of Florence’s brilliant art scene. When her father brings home a silent and mysterious Northern (where North, this is never made clear) artist to decorate the family chapel, Alessandra is drawn to the man in a mix of jealousy and thwarted passion. She begs the artist (who is never named) to guide her and teach her — and even shows him her secret drawings. But spending time alone with a strange man is completely outside the norms of Alessandra’s society, a fact that even she understands. Finally, to escape her stifled role as an unmarried daughter, Alessandra accepts the proposal of an older, wealthy man of noble family who offers her the freedom to paint. Naive and innocent, Alessandra accepts, not understanding that her fiance is a homosexual seeking the cover of marriage to continue his pursuits of male lovers — especially her own brother.
The plot rolls on against the tumultuous events of the waning of Medici power — including Pietro Medici’s ineptitude and disgrace, and the subsequent invasion of French troops. The collapse of Medici power and the republic brings on the fanatical rule of Savonarola — who calls all Florence to cleanse itself and return to God. Savonarola and his army of “angels” have a particular bent toward suppressing women and homosexuals (hmmm….history always repeats itself) and Alessandra’s subsequent affair with her mysterious painter-lover, her husband and brother’s downfalls and disappearances, her pregnancy, the plague, birth of her little daughter, widowhood (although not really), the arrest of Savonarola all start to blend together with a frantic crescendo that leaves you gasping. Somehow all mixed into this are a series of brutal murder-mutilations that never seem to be solved….or make you think, wait a minute, did Alessandra’s brother do them (the dolt, not the fop). Herein lies the book’s failure. I think Dunant just bit off a bit more than she could chew, or fresco. There were confused references to Michelangelo here and there in the book — was he Alessandra’s unnamed lover and the father of her child? Alessandra’s husband left her a precious manuscript that I think was illustrated by Botticelli — was that why the book is entitled, The Birth of Venus — after Botticelli’s masterpiece? But Botticelli was never introduced as a character in the book and the illustrations are supposed to be of Dante’s Inferno — not the beautiful painting of Venus on the half-shell. So, what was the connection? At the end, Alessandra retires to a convent with her baby daughter and her faithful maidservant. Her lover-artist comes to her once more after the passing of years. She lets him take her daughter away with him to ….somewhere where the girl can be free and express her own artistic talent. After they leave, Alessandra has her maidservant tattoo most of her upper body with a sexy snake. Not too long after that, she kills herself and leaves us this story as her memoir.
No, uh-uh, I’m not making that one up. I’m sorry, at that point I just wanted to say, hey, come on. I think what Dunant was trying to say was: women — we can’t be suppressed. Even if our art is a secret snake tattoo, we’ll keep making it. I get that, but I was disappointed and kind of sad. I was hoping that Alessandra would lead history’s first all-woman graffiti gang to protest the suppression of love, art and women — or something along those lines. Or take off after her lover and her daughter to join them in their new free life. That would have been the ending I would have liked to see: a true birth and renaissance, not a sad and quiet death of an interesting and talented character. All in all, this wasn’t a bad book — but with the terrific material, writing and characterization, I think Dunant had the making of a masterpiece. Unfortunately, this was not one.