loulamac’s #CBR5 review #31: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant


I’ll confess it, I’m madly in love with The Borgias. It’s stupid and hammy, Jeremy Irons’ performance is stupid and hammy, but Micheletto is excellent, and Francois Arnaud rocks the slashed doublet/tight leather trousers man-about-15th-Century-Italy look. So, between series, I found myself turning to Sarah Dunant for a bit of Renaissance action. As I expected, the book was full of sketchily drawn characters, and despite next to nothing happening for much of its 400+ pages it fairly rattled along. I wasn’t expecting Hilary Mantel, but despite that I was disappointed. It’s a fluffy, disposable read, but not a very good one.

The book opens with the passing of a mysterious nun. Mysterious because she doesn’t seem to have died of the cancer her fellow sisters thought she had, and in death she is revealed to have a snake tattooed across her body. This discovery catapults us back in time, to 1490s. Dominican monk Savonarola is terrorising Florence, and fourteen-year-old Alessandra Cecchi is about to meet the young painter who will change her life. Alessandra’s father’s cloth business is thriving, and like any self-respecting, ambitious Florentine, he has brought a painter into his home to decorate his family’s newly built chapel. Alessandra has artistic leanings herself, and so is fascinated by this enigmatic, strange young man. She is also jealous of him, as she knows that the society in which she lives will not allow her to explore her talents, and that she is expected to conform and become nothing more than a wife and mother. With this in mind, she rushes into marriage with a man her father’s age, and in the tension formed by a secret at the heart of this marriage she is allowed enough freedom to find herself.

This book has it all – star-crossed lovers, concealed homosexuality, religious extremism, plague and political upheaval. Despite all this, it falls flat. The characters are barely present. Our heroine, Alessandra, runs the gamut from annoying to spoilt to immature before veering back to annoying. As a love-interest, the painter (who we never discover the name of) is so anonymous as to be practically transparent. As a result, the great passion they are supposed to feel for art, and each other, never lifts off the page. The writing is coy and attempts to be ‘literary’ come across as juvenile and clunky. It’s a shame, as this could have been a cracking good beach read. Thank god Lucrezia et al are now back on Sky.