Thursday, July 15, 2010

Kelly's Review of "The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant

Title: The Birth of Venus
Author: Sarah Dunant
Published: Random House Trade, 2003
Where I Got It: The library
Why I Read It: It was recommended to me on Yahoo! Answers, of all places

Wow. I picked The Birth of Venus up from the library on my way home from school one day and read it from cover to cover in four hours (completely ignoring my homework). I can only think of one or two other times that a book has captivated me that easily.

The book follows Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager in Italy during the late 15th century, the peak of the Renaissance. Her father brings home a young painter from northern Europe who is commissioned to paint and decorate the family's chapel. Alessandra, who loves art herself, is entranced by this mysterious painter (and I do mean mysterious, we never learn this guy's name!). Before anything else can happen, Alessandra's parents suddenly marry her off to a much older man, a man who hides a dark secret. In the mean time, Savonarola, a monk who destroyed what he believed to be immoral art, held book burnings (!), and ranted and raved about numerous other things, is raising hellfire in Florence. The city faces destruction and waves of change. Along the way, Alessandra grows up, deals with life, and still finds herself drawn to this painter.

One reason I enjoyed this book as much as I did is the fact that Alessandra is so likable. She has the three S's: she's sarcastic, smart and strong (well, as strong as a woman in the Middle Ages could be).

Several things still puzzled me. The first was the language. The slang and curse words seem very 21st century....words that I'm not sure were casually thrown around in the 1400s. The second is the identity of the painter. Like I said before, we never find out his name (in effect, he's only called 'The Painter'), but just who is he? We are led to believe that he became someone famous, a person we ourselves would have known and learned about in school. If anyone has any idea, please throw out your guesses, it's killing me!

All in all, the story, setting, characters, and events are brilliant. There is humor, drama, sadness and love. I will say that there was a semi-graphic sex scene that was entirely too awkward, especially when you find out later details. Luckily, the good far outweighs the bad!

I don't throw 5 stars around easily, but this deserves it. In fact, 5+ stars.


  1. I have to say..I don't read much historical fiction but I feel like I keep adding more historical fiction to my list every time you review!!

  2. It may be Botticelli. He is the artist who painted "The Birth of Venus," a pretty significant Renaissance painting. That's my best guess without having read the book.

  3. Yep, my guess was the same as Brenna's. I assumed that is where the name came from. I also loved this book. Will you try more by her? I do recommend her other books as well after reading this and Sacred Hearts.

  4. This has been sitting on my shelf for years. I might just have to pull it off and put it on the top of my TBR pile.

  5. Wow, Yahoo answers, huh? Glad it's good for something!

    I really don't like it when historical fiction books don't quite seem to fit the time period (like what you said with the slang). I think reading classics has ruined me for historical fiction. Nobody can write about a time period as well as someone who's lived it.

  6. Agreed Ronnica! I think that is the mark of a really good historical fiction novel when they can make you almost forget that it was written today because the vocabulary is appropriate for that time.

  7. I initially thought of Botticelli as well, but it is mentioned in the book that the painter was brought to Florence from northern Europe....and the real Botticelli was born and raised in Florence...also he'd be too old for the character anyways. But those are legit guesses that make the most sense!

    Amy, In the Company of the Courtesan is on my to-read list, but I'm in no particular rush to get around to it. I'm glad you enjoyed her novels though!

    Completely agreed Ronnica.

  8. This book is great! I love your review, Kelly. I finished this on December 31 a few years ago—maybe five or so years ago?—and loved it! I didn't like Sacred Hearts as much, though.

  9. Have you read the Creation of Eve yet? If you like historical fiction that deals with art and has a strong female lead then I think you'll enjoy it. I read it over Spring Break and couldn't put it down.

  10. Great review! I'll be getting this book at once and make it my first relaxing summer read. :) (Ignoring the thousands of other books - school and non-school - that are already lying here and waiting to be read.)

    I'm not sure about the slang thing. I've read things that were written today, but dealt with past times that were written in a very modern way and language. If this style is coherent and don't contradict the story or characters I really like it.
    I don't like it, when it becomes obvious that an author just "tried" to make something sound like "original past", but all the time you know, it really isn't. That happens a lot, when people don't to the research (and the people who DO the research often don't use much original slang than, because they feel it would sound too fake...)

    (I seem to be having trouble leaving comments... I hope this one shows up. :) )

  11. I LOOOOOVE this book. I remember reading it throughout my music appreciation lectures my senior year in high school (I got a lot of reading done in that class). I've been wanting to re-read it for a while now but I have so many books I've yet to read, I just cannot seem to bring myself to do it!

    I bought another one of her books (In the Company of the Courtesan) but I was never really able to get into it like I did this one. I saw that she has another book, though the title escapes me, that I thought sounded incredibly interesting. I really don't want her to be a "one-hit-wonder" to me. I was so captivated by this story and I'd love to be captivated again!

  12. It could be we never learn his name because he symbolizes so many different artists. You could make him out to be whoever you want. It adds the personalization element.


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