Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Birth of Venus (Book Review)

   My most recent literary adventure was orchestrated by a lovely woman named Sarah Dunant, author of The Birth of Venus. It is a 400 page piece of historical fiction, illustrating and exploring the life of an Italian woman during the late fifteenth century. I loved it. It reads like a guilty pleasure but feeds your mind enough to make you feel pretty good about it. Like a bacon sundae.

Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, 2004
   In all seriousness, reading good historical fiction is a fabulous way to both tempt and satisfy an appetite for real history, all the while thoroughly indulging in everything avid readers love. This novel weaves together with dazzling emotion and detail the lives of Renaissance artists, authority figures of the Catholic church, Italian politicians, and nameless but fascinating private citizens. 

   I wonder if history teachers ever use fiction to reinforce their lessons? I think it would be a great idea. Seeing the world's most notable events unfold from the street view, so to speak, rather than from the usual global perspective, really raises better questions and prompts more compassion and understanding than just memorizing lists of names, dates, and capital cities. 

   Okay, teaching style rant over. Back to highly recommending this gorgeous piece of writing.

   If you are interested in art history, this book will surround you with mouthwatering images, understanding, and fascination about who painted, how they painted, why they moved around the world, what impacted their style, and how their careers evolved. Without hitting you over the head with the obvious, Dunant hints at and whispers secrets about artists some people only know as teenage mutant ninja turtles. It is wonderful. I have walked away slightly pleased with what I could discern from her sneaky suggestions but also desperately hungry to know more.

   If you are a sucker for reading about social struggle and the motivations of different classes of people at key moments in history, this book will tease you plenty. Dunant deals a lot with the impact of religion and politics on the Italian social fabric, and I think the issues raised in these 400 pages could keep a good intellectual discussion fueled for months. Book club, beware...

   Perhaps it comes as no surprise to you that a complex tale of a woman's life during this highly textured time in history would include sex. Well, it does. Plenty of it, though not in the Christian Grey kind of way. Dunant unfolds this aspect of life elegantly but directly. So that is just my little caveat for you, lest you should arrive at that first juicy page while reading aloud to either your history class or your mother in law.

   One more thing I would like to mention is how the author has generously seasoned her story with lines that are perfectly quote worthy. Her characters speak sometimes in a vernacular of adage, so if you borrow my copy you will find lots of highlighting and dog-earring.

"My limitations made me despair. 
As long as I was both 
my own master and apprentice
I would be forever caught 
in the web of inexperience."

   You guys, what a beautiful story. Truly. What a great way to be reminded of the importance of the Italian Renaissance, the seriousness of religious corruption, the power of the female force, and the tendency for history to repeat itself. I am so thankful to authors like Sarah Dunant who take the time to study our mutual past then express it in new and sparkling ways. 

Consider Your Own History 
and the Complex Story it Would Tell


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