- Paperback: 374 pages
- Publisher: Black and White Publishing (July 26, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 178530125X
- ISBN-13: 978-1785301254
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.2 x 6.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,011,723 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Return of the Courtesan Paperback – July 26, 2017
The Amazon Book Review
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"Travelling across time and space, this compelling intrigue captures the beauty of several Venices and the essence of Titian - the city's most scandalous genius." FRANCESCO DA MOSTO; "From the squalid glamour of 16th century Venice to modern-day London and New York, The Return of the Courtesan demonstrates the power of art to bridge the years and transform lives. With fine, elegant brush-strokes, Victoria Blake has created a rich and enchanting novel." RORY CLEMENTS, author of Sunday Times Bestseller Holy Spy
About the Author
Victoria Blake's love of Italy and history was inspired by her father, the historian Robert Blake, famous for his pioneering biography of Benjamin Disraeli. She grew up in Queen's College, Oxford where he was the Provost. After studying history at Lady Margaret Hall she subsequently worked in law, publishing and bookselling. She is the author of an Oxford based crime series featuring the PI Sam Falconer and has written two true crime books for the National Archives, one on Ruth Ellis, and one on Florence Maybrick. Her historical novel Far Away has been short-listed for the Historical Society Novel Indie Award 2016.
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In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter's Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.
These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian's paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.
Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian's son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it's Tullia's story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia's case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.
In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro's Cuba.
Terry's connection to Titian comes when he is in the National Gallery admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can't imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can't imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn't know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.
I've been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it's done gently – there's no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian's art that link these people about whom we've come to care.
I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I've tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it's about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it's about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life's blows. Highly recommended. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.
It was fascinating to be privy to the inner thoughts of a master painter, famous courtesan, Venetian boatman, English stage actor, Italian film director, New York City police man, Italian nun, Manhattan cleaning lady, Italian poet and aging movie star. Revenge drives one character, the desire to reach a higher social standing another, fame and perhaps wealth motivates a third, and memories of better times keep a forth going. All of their stories are connected via a single painting, Titian’s Man With the Blue Sleeve.
The cast of characters is quite large yet two remain central: Terry, an important British stage actor who is grieving the loss of his mother and breakup with his lover in the year 2011, and Sebastiano da Canal, a gondolier who worked for Titian’s friends and a courtesan in sixteenth century Venice.
Each chapter provides a snippet of information which reveals another insight into the character’s lives, place and time. The novel reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle that has to be reassembled before one can truly understand it. I was quite impressed by how the author tailored her writing style to the era portrayed and characters described. In all instances, her prose is beautiful and evocative. The short chapters and large cast keep the reader alert and it is a delight to discover what twist or turn the author introduces next.
Based on the book’s description, cover design and the fact that the author’s father is a well-respected historian, I was expecting a story seeped in historical detail with long, flowery descriptions of setting and place. This novel isn’t like that; instead it is a tight series of family histories connected together by bloodlines, servitude and the paintings of Titian. Don’t get me wrong, the author’s descriptions are lavish and even sumptuous, yet every detail matters. She provides enough information about the time and place to engage and inform, then stops.
Within a span of merely 369 pages, the author covers several important and complex historical events: the Inquisition, medieval punishments, Jews’ banishment to the Ghettos, pagan rituals versus organized religion, courtesans and patrons, sons and priesthood, dowries and nunneries, households and creditors. Her explanations are compact and efficient; short, quick scenes that effectively sketch the background of current events and social attitudes held without turning the book into a university lecture.
She has wisely chosen characters whose actions help explain the events leading up to the decisions and attitudes held. Though several of them are based on real people and many of the events described did happen, history provides the outline and the author’s imagination fills in the rest.
The events happening in both eras mirror each other, informing and supporting each other through a parallel plot structure that works incredibly well. All of the threads draw to a satisfying close, perhaps too happy, but fitting for such a novel. I can imagine on a second or even third read, I would pick up even more connections between time, place and characters.
Art and art history are important to this novel, and the reader learns about Titian’s painting practices, use of models and the role of his patrons. The art historian in me loved the art history jokes sprinkled throughout the novel, in particular those concerning the popularity of certain painters and the role of museums educators. “He sighed and lingered just long enough to see what painter they would bring up. His worst fears were confirmed – Van Gogh and his wretched sunflowers. How inevitable!” (page 137) Passages such as these cracked me up, and are an excellent example of the author’s subtle humor and gift for timing.
I really enjoyed visiting both historic and contemporary Venice with this author. Her evocative descriptions of place were a pleasure to read and often worked into the text in a most unique way. “He was as transparent as the lagoon” (page 207) is one of many beautifully descriptive examples.
Present day Venice is also described as I recall it. The author shows you the glorious cathedrals, squares and cafes of the city center and take you on a trip around the city, highlighting both the tourist hotspots and local favorites. The city is described by someone who has clearly spent time wandering along the canals and bridges crisscrossing the main islands and riding the vaporettos (water buses) to the outlying areas.
Her descriptions don’t just focus on the architecture and famous churches. She provides a realistic look at the use of planks when the city center floods, compares the pigeon problematic at St. Mark’s in Venice to London’s Trafalgar Square, mentions pricey cafes on historic squares, overcrowded scenic routes along the Grand Canals and eerily empty side streets and squares a few blocks away.
As far as the historical chapters are concerned, the era is as well described as the city of Venice. Readers see the Ghetto and squalor as well as the beauty wealth could provide during and after the plague in the 1570s.
Central London, in particular Trafalgar square and the National Gallery come to life. You feel the rain and winds, crowded streets and irritations with the Tube. I love how she describes the Thames River running through the city: “In a city this crowded, why on earth didn’t they use it as a source of transport? Then at least it would have some use; it would get back its pride and dignity. All it had was its ebb and flow, and of course the dubious pleasure of transporting tourists between the two Tates, but there was no dignity in that.” (page 128)
Titian’s Boatman was a joy to read, as much for the fascinating characters and historical what ifs?, as the setting – both London and Venice. She describes the cities in a way that makes you feel as if you are there walking alongside her characters.
I highly recommend this book to fans of art history, historical fiction, European travel, and pretty much anyone else who loves reading a great book.