Bookmarks Issue: 
Sarah Dunant

A Novel

A-BirthVenusIn late 15th-century Florence, a Dominican monk, Savanarola, comes to power following the fall of the house of Medici. Against a rising climate of religious zeal, corruption, and violence, the teenage Alessandra Cecchi, daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, meets a young painter commissioned to decorate the family's palazzo. Although a disappointing arranged marriage denies Alessandra of true love, it allows her to pursue her education, art, and attraction to the celebrated painter. But life takes a strange turn, and, years later, two nuns discover a cryptic tattoo encircling Alessandra's (now Sister Lucrezia's) dead body, and start to piece together her secret life.
Random House. 397 pages. $21.95.

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"As the novel moves forward, it is politics rather than art that emerges as its central concern, and Dunant does a remarkable job of evoking Florence under the oppressive Dominican monk Savanarola. ... Dunant has injected a kind of realpolitik into the [artistic secret-history] genre, making it far more poignant and interesting." David Liss

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Though Dunant doesn't often take lyrical literary flight, she offers a skilled, witty and provocative meditation, informed by deep historical insight, on the interface between material poverty and cultural revolution, as well as pain and pleasure, ecstasy and transcendence, guilt and innocence." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
" I have the sense that Dunant is having a bit of fun with the conventions of these historical romances, and that Alessandra Cecchi offers something of an antidote to more simplistic views of the past." Valerie Martin

Minneapolis Star Trib 3 of 5 Stars
"The novel does have its pleasures. ... [It] succeeds in providing the panicked, smothered sensation of a young woman in a repressive society with limited options but never builds a believable sense of romance or suspense." Cherie Parker

SF Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"While historical fiction inevitably recasts the past in the image of the present, The Birth of Venus, like Susan Vreeland's The Passion of Artemisia (2002), also set in early modern Italy, sometimes goes too far in smoothing over the sheer strangeness to us of life half a millennium ago. ... In the end, The Birth of Venus works best as a heady, sensual page- turner." Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Providence Journal 1.5 of 5 Stars
" comes off as a trite, melodramatic coming-of-age story, in which cryptic tattoos on nuns, gruesome manners of torture, and explicit descriptions of sexual acts are bandied about for shock value." Kristin Latina

Critical Summary

With Birth of Venus, Dunant joins a genre inhabited by Tracey Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring and Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Like these novels, Birth of Venus lovingly celebrates art and artistic endeavor, offering pages of convincing period detail. But here, politics occupies center stage as well, with Alessandra caught in the middle of a battle for control of Florence by the Medicis and Roman Catholic friars. Although a poignant coming-of-age story, Alessandra's plight appears melodramatic, her relationship with the artist lacks inspiration, and improbable plots clutter the narrative. Still, the novel's imagination and playfulness, not to mention its broad swath of Renaissance history, will appeal to a wide audience.