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.