Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Birth of Venus

For some reason, I just had to re-read The Birth of Venus for what must be the third or fourth time.

Subtitled "Love and Death in Florence", this powerful novel by British writer Sarah Dunant is described by Simon Schama as being "a beautiful serpent of a novel, seductive and dangerous". I don't know about "dangerous", exactly, but edgy and subversive it certainly is at times. "Serpent" may also seem to be an odd choice of word to describe a novel, but in this case it makes sense on reading the book.

A classic coming-of-age tale, the story centres around Alexandra, a young girl growing into womanhood in Renaissance Italy. She is surrounded by privilege and luxury, but also by education, fabulous art and artists, creativity... and splendid fabrics; her father is a cloth merchant. All the requisite elements of the coming-of-age story are present: sibling rivalry, rebellion against parents, independence and adventurousness in the heroine, and of course love in many forms.

Be warned, though, that despite a Renaissance backdrop, this book takes a swing at a number of edgy issues, including homosexuality and adultery. People who are uncomfortable with a discussion of these topics may not enjoy this book.

Sarah Dunant, originally a writer of mysteries & crime fiction, has lost none of her skill in creating suspense with this move away from genre writing. Clever plot twists and moments of discovery keep the story moving along at an exciting pace.

Note: Try to figure out the identity of the Painter before the end of the book. Bonus points for guessing the secret that Alexandra's mother keeps.

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