four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
By: 
Sarah Dunant
user_rating: 
0

A-InTheCompanyOfTheCourtesanWhen troops of the Holy Roman Emperor sack Rome in 1527, Bucino Teodoldo, the sharp-witted dwarf who narrates this tale, and his mistress, the famed Fiammetta Bianchini, arrive in Venice with nothing but swallowed jewels in their stomachs. Finding Venice a city of opposites, they struggle to recover Fiammetta’s former position as top courtesan. But as Fiammetta rises professionally, her plans are interrupted by La Draga, a blind healer with magical powers, and the son of a noble family with whom Fiammetta falls in love. Her love drives a wedge between her and Bucino and nearly spells her downfall.
Random House. 384 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1400063817

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]o read In the Company of the Courtesan is to be transported to the sights and scents of a 16th-century Renaissance world through a book that is not about the sale of sex but rather the exchange of favors. … And though the times are different from ours, the people essentially are not, and the reader comes to care about them because they are quite familiar." Robin Vidimos

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Dunant’s second historical novel … takes a standard fairy tale and twists it. … Her deft writing about piety and policy, public virtue versus private hypocrisy and the politics of shame and fear is as relevant to our world as to 16th-century Italy." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Money, careers, religion, social groups, sex and the grand sweep of events form the building blocks of Dunant’s tale. … Dunant’s is a modern mind, excited by progress, the atmosphere of a vibrant society, the pace and direction of change, and she has the skill to render this in language that stimulates a similar imaginative response." Elsbeth Lindner

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With its self-assured storytelling and lush descriptions, In the Company of the Courtesan is that perfect blend of literary novel and popular fiction. … Ultimately, it is Dunant’s ability to make Bucino such a human and humane character that makes [the novel] shine." Ellen Emry Heltzel

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"By the end, readers will feel as though they understand the reality of being physically different in a harsh era. … The minutiae involved in launching Fiammetta as a Venetian courtesan reads like a mixture of Horatio Alger, Victoria’s Secret, and Renaissance scholarship: the clothing, the shoes, the gondola, the servants, the subtle advertising, the lavish furnishings, the need to create mystery, the clients, the food and drink." Deirdre Donahue

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The novel’s plot is not particularly tight, but there are some great set-pieces, notably a muscular and violent battle between the Arsenale workers and the Nicoletti fishermen. Otherwise, this amiable, intelligent story ambles along pretty much of its own accord, toward a good surprise at the end." Philippa Stockley

Critical Summary

Her debut novel, The Birth of Venus, explored 15th-century Florence; Sarah Dunant’s latest offering—what USA Today calls "both a business thriller and a historical love story"—delves into 16th-century Venice. Dunant paints a remarkable portrait of Venice, from its corruption to its class tensions, filthy ghettos and mansions, and virtues and vices. Critics fell in love with the deformed Bucino, an intimate, tender companion with a deep bond to Fiammetta. A few quibbles: the dearth of explicit sex scenes titillated some critics while disappointing others, and a few complained that Dunant’s descriptive prowess overwhelmed a meandering plot. The novel is worth a read, however, simply for its rich set pieces.

Also by the Author

The Birth of Venus (2004): 3 of 5 Stars May/June 2004. Against a rising climate of religious zeal, corruption, and violence in 15th-century Florence, 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 true love, it allows her to pursue her education, art, and attraction to the celebrated painter.