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The Birth of Venus: A Novel (Reader's Circle) Paperback – November 30, 2004

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Product Details

  • Series: Reader's Circle
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (November 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812968972
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812968972
  • Product Dimensions: 10 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (422 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Sarah Dunant's gorgeous and mesmerizing novel, Birth of Venus, draws readers into a turbulent 15th-century Florence, a time when the lavish city, steeped in years of Medici family luxury, is suddenly besieged by plague, threat of invasion, and the righteous wrath of a fundamentalist monk. Dunant masterfully blends fact and fiction, seamlessly interweaving Florentine history with the coming-of-age story of a spirited 14-year-old girl. As Florence struggles in Savonarola's grip, a serial killer stalks the streets, the French invaders creep closer, and young Alessandra Cecchi must surrender her "childish" dreams and navigate her way into womanhood. Readers are quickly seduced by the simplicity of her unconventional passions that are more artistic than domestic:

Dancing is one of the many things I should be good at that I am not. Unlike my sister. Plautilla can move across the floor like water and sing a stave of music like a song bird, while I, who can translate both Latin and Greek faster than she or my brothers can read it, have club feet on the dance floor and a voice like a crow. Though I swear if I were to paint the scale I could do it in a flash: shining gold leaf for the top notes falling through ochres and reds into hot purple and deepest blue.

Alessandra's story, though central, is only one part of this multi-faceted and complex historical novel. Dunant paints a fascinating array of women onto her dark canvas, each representing the various fates of early Renaissance women: Alessandra's lovely (if simple) sister Plautilla is interested only in marrying rich and presiding over a household; the brave Erila, Alessandra's North African servant (and willing accomplice) has such a frank understanding of the limitations of her sex that she often escapes them; and Signora Cecchi, Alessandra's beautiful but weary mother tries to encourage yet temper the passions of her wayward daughter.

A luminous and lush novel, The Birth of Venus, at its heart, is a mysterious and sensual story with razor-sharp teeth. Like Alessandra, Dunant has a painter's eye--her writing is rich and evocative, luxuriating in colors and textures of the city, the people, and the art of 15th-century Florence. Reminiscent of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, but with sensual splashes of color and the occasional thrill of fear, Dunant's novel is both exciting and enchanting. --Daphne Durham --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In this arresting tale of art, love and betrayal in 15th-century Florence, the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant seeks the freedom of marriage in order to paint, but finds that she may have bought her liberty at the cost of love and true fulfillment. Alessandra, 16, is tall, sharp-tongued and dauntingly clever. At first reluctant to agree to an arranged marriage, she changes her mind when she meets elegant 48-year-old Cristoforo, who is well-versed in art and literature. He promises to give her all the freedom she wants-and she finds out why on her wedding night. Her disappointment and frustration are soon overshadowed by the growing cloud of madness and violence hanging over Florence, nourished by the sermons of the fanatically pious Savonarola. As the wealthy purge their palazzos of "low" art and luxuries, Alessandra gives in to the dangerous attraction that draws her to a tormented young artist commissioned to paint her family's chapel. With details as rich as the brocade textiles that built Alessandra's family fortune, Dunant (Mapping the Edge; Transgressions; etc.) masterfully recreates Florence in the age of the original bonfire of the vanities. The novel moves to its climax as Savonarola's reign draws to a bloody close, with the final few chapters describing Alessandra's fate and hinting at the identity of her artist lover. While the story is rushed at the end, the author has a genius for peppering her narrative with little-known facts, and the deadpan dialogue lends a staccato verve to the swift-moving plot. Forget Baedecker and Vasari's Lives of the Artists. Dunant's vivid, gripping novel gives fresh life to a captivating age of glorious art and political turmoil.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

The author of the critically acclaimed Hannah Wolfe mystery series, Sarah Dunant is also well known in the United Kingdom for her work as a television host. She lives in London.

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

438 of 485 people found the following review helpful By David Kusumoto on September 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Sarah Dunant's "The Birth of Venus" feels similar to Tracy Chevalier's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and Susan Vreeland's "Girl in the Hyacinth Blue." 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 girl-turned-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 liberation. Yet I was blindsided by Dunant's "The Birth of Venus" - especially its socko-ending - coming from an author better known for her crime novels and TV appearances in the United Kingdom.

Dunant's accomplishment: She establishes familiar plot threads about her protagonist, Alessandra. Hers is a page-turning, rebellious story. 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 unpredictable (but mostly plausible) 90-degree plot turns that are wonderfully intriguing.

"The Birth of Venus" may not be high literature, but it's Dunant's best work to date. Her love for her adopted city of Florence is obvious. She goes out of her way to spin a fictional tale that's rooted in well-researched, historical reality. The "superstars" of the Renaissance make their appearances, but never in a jarring, manipulative or name-dropping way. They're part of the landscape.
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55 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Diana F. Von Behren TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Alessandra tells her story of Florence during the tight reign of the monk Savonarola, in the form of a memoir, found after her death by fellow sisters in a provincial convent. Living in an age where classic thought and sensibilities are revisited and possessing an acute mind and an acrid tongue, she must resign herself to a more conventional role as a woman of the Renaissance, bound by duty to marry and bear children rather than be the philosopher painter she wishes to be. From the moment she encounters the painter from the North that her father has commissioned to paint the family chapel, she is relentless in seeking him out. While her first desire is to learn the secrets of color and brushwork, she finds herself attracted to the painter in ways she had not expected, and finds herself frustrated in more ways than she bargained when she must follow her appointed path as a Florentine woman.

The plot itself follows a rather straightforward course steered by somewhat predictable but well-crafted characters. Blended expertly with historical details of the age: the reign of the Medici family, the invasion of Florence by France, the paranoia of the city while under the helm of the monk, and the dropping of famous names like Botticelli, Michelangelo, Fra Angelico and Da Vinci, the author presents us with a fictitious view of what life could have been like back in the early 1500s. Alessandra's mindset is indeed, that of a 20th woman, a bit cynical and slightly world-weary for one of such tender years, but this adds to her appeal to the author's intended audience. Overall, the storyline compels one to read on and contains enough hints and little mysteries to keep even the most well-read reader turning the pages.
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44 of 48 people found the following review helpful By FMerino on September 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I'm a busy person so I'm not the type to read a book without being able to put it down, but this one literally had me calling in sick to work to finish. The plot moves fluidly and Dunant has clearly perfected the art of plot twists, but while they keep the reader engaged, most of the characters are (very) sadly two-dimensional and undeveloped.

Alessandra is the youngest of four children in a wealthy family in 15th century Florence, Italy, and while precocious and wildly adventurous, she also has a keen eye for art and a mind spinning with politics and philosophy. When her father brings home an artist to paint the family's chapel, Alessandra sees an opportunity to learn under a real painter in an unofficial apprenticeship, only to find out that the painter, while handsome and consumed with a fear of Alessandra that only seems to draw her to him, harbors a dark secret.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the novel is almost completely centered around Alessandra and the painter, very little time is spent developing their relationship or their characters, particularly the painter. They have a couple of scattered trysts, in which their attraction is conveyed in some manner or another. But they never fully explore one another. Alessandra never really grows up and learns anything, and while clearly meant to be a feministic thrust in a time of subordinance for women (loosely, I believe, based on Laura Cereta), she had absolutely no confidence in her own principles. She demanded equal treatment as an intellect, but her philosophical spoutings were less about philosophy and more about showing everyone that she knew philosophy, and when she wasn't desperately trying to prove herself, she spent the rest of the time obsessing over how she looked.
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