Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus feels so much similar to Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Vanora Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman, books I’ve read in the past years. All three are works of historical fiction that have the ability to convince, albeit fleetingly, that they must be true.

However, The Birth of Venus isn’t based on the Botticelli masterpiece that still resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It’s based on the metaphorical “birth” – and transformation – of a woman whose single-mindedness is constantly thwarted by actions which force her to conform to 15th century Florentine society.

I’m not big on novels associated with the feminist school of thought that suggests forbidden romance, in all of its forms, brings about liberation or freedom. Yet I was blindsided by this one – well, a little.

One of Dunant’s foremost accomplishments with this novel – and there are few – is her establishing of familiar plot threads about her protagonist, Alessandra. Hers is a page-turning, rebellious story, almost melodramatic, but it’s one that follows a rather straightforward course steered by predictable and one-dimensional characters. You start to feel smug because you think you’ve figured out how everything’s going to end. But just when you think you’re heading toward a familiar train wreck, Dunant puts you through many erratic (but mostly plausible) 90-degree plot turns that are, well, typical, but still quite intriguing.

Alessandra, however, is not sympathetic and it’s very difficult to bring yourself to care about her struggles. The novel does have a few redeeming qualities – Dunant’s skill with words and her knowledge of Florence. Her love for her adopted city is obvious, and she goes out of her way to spin a fictional tale that’s rooted in well-researched, historical reality. Her descriptions of life in Renaissance Florence are fascinating and carried me through the novel even when I had lost patience with the narrative. Some big names of the Renaissance make their appearances, but never in a jarring, manipulative or name-dropping way. They’re merely part of the landscape – and perhaps that’s what makes them uninteresting. Many relationships in the story are explored but few, if any, deepen or resolve themselves or result in growth of the characters involved.

Apart from these, there are two things that keeps this book from perfection. First, modern slang occasionally surfaces that feels incongruent to 21st century readers who’ve been drawn into a setting that’s more than 500 years old. Yes, I know we’re reading a “fictional translation” of an Italian narration to English, but it still feels improper and awkward to read present-day colloquialisms sprinkled throughout a novel that’s mostly placid in tone. Contrast this with erotic passages which, for the most part, are devoid of crudeness (though at times described a little too self-consciously).

Second, about those erotic passages: there aren’t many. They’re mostly executed with great sensitivity. I dislike sex described in clinical terms. But a couple of times Dunant comes too close to projecting thoughts into Alessandra’s narration that feel pretentious, a little too lyrical or metaphorical, even from the voice of an adult who’s “looking backward.” Do women really string metaphors about sex together, as you read here, even in their most reflective and introspective moments? As a result, what’s supposed to feel like sexual liberation rings a little false.

I guess what fails most miserably is Dunant’s lack of solving any of the mysteries that she so tantalizingly provides for us. Alessandra fixates on the form of the snake tattooed on the man in the square, so much so that she has one tattooed on her own body – but the reason for her action is muddled and I for one do not understand the actual significance – an act of defiance? Empathy with Eve and her sin? Ironically, the significance of one of the most compelling symbols in the book remains coiled but never unfurled. Similarly, Dunant hints at the great artist that Alessandra loves and gives us enough clues to make some sort of guess to his identity, but then never actually tells us who he is or if he even existed. You’re baffled about the mysterious man who’s never identified by name. You’re given a few clues, but he remains a cryptic figure, a brooding and tortured artist who returns years later in the novel so worldly and wise. You wonder if he is Flemish from the descriptions of the North Sea and the low country. You know he studied anatomy when it was forbidden with the likes of Michelangelo at Santo Spirito. And you know that after the fall of Savonarola, he goes off to Rome to escape further persecution, and that he returns much later in the novel, someone entirely new, his sexual and artistic techniques honed like a razor, but again, his identity remains obscure. I almost assumed he was a creation, but no, he exists as a “real” historical figure for you to investigate.

Suspending disbelief is obviously required when great figures creep into a novel. The Birth of Venus weaves its tale cleverly, but I wish Dunant’s Alessandra had gone no further when she describes the return, years later, of this man who remains an important figure in her life.

She says, “We had always been bound to each other through the power of longing, even when we understood nothing of desire.”

I wished Dunant had stopped there. Instead, she plows ahead with the inevitable scene that would’ve been better suggested than described in a way that feels a little forced, posed and “artsy.” I became aware of Dunant’s writing. And this isn’t supposed to happen. A great story is supposed to make you less conscious of prose that simply tells, of prose that illuminates as it narrates.

In the end, though, these may be small quibbles. But that doesn’t erase the impression that this novel needs to be re-written.

It may not be necessary to know the “Who’s Who” of the Renaissance, e.g., Savonarola, Medici, the whole lot of them, and it may not be necessary to walk the streets of present-day Florence to get what’s in The Birth of Venus. But they do enhance the enjoyment of a story that’s set in one of the world’s most romantic cities. I am not familiar with Florentine art and history, but I did get a wallop after finishing it.

To my relief, it’s satisfying. Without giving it away, The Birth of Venus closes unconventionally yet beautifully; optimistically yet realistically; quietly yet without being thrown into the throes of depression.

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