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The Birth of Venus    by Sarah Dunant order for
Birth of Venus
by Sarah Dunant
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover, Paperback, Audio, CD, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

Very simply written, this is a captivating story set in Florence in the 1500s, the time of Savonarola. Sarah Dunant depicts the artistic ferment that existed in the city along with its many excesses, all of which allowed Savonarola to make the impression he did. Many relationships are examined here: family and loyalty, sibling rivalry, females in a male-dominated society, the possibility of romantic love and most tellingly, sexual identity. They all come together in the family of an aspiring cloth-maker.

Alessandra is the youngest child, smarter than her sister and brothers but not as graceful. Her father brings a young painter to work on their newly completed chapel. Alessandra wishes to paint and sees this circumstance as a wonderful way to further her skills. But 'the chances of an unmarried daughter finding herself in the company of men of any description, let alone artisans, are severely limited.' But Alessandra persists and establishes a tenuous relationship with the artist.

At this time Florence is in a ferment over the invasion of the French, the death of Lorenzo de Medici, and most importantly, the growing influence of Savonarola in the city. Each of these will affect Alessandra in quite differing ways. Alessandra's art turns out to be the only constant in her life. Neither her family, her husband, her lover, her child nor her love of God has permanency. And though she felt hers was but 'a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others ... to have been a part of it at all was enough'.

Sarah Dunant set herself a difficult task in this work. While her descriptions of color are wonderful and she makes us understand the time in which man was brought 'into contact with God in a way he had never been before,', descriptions of the act of painting are lacking. Also, the characters are not as well developed as one could hope - this does not advance our insight into the gender role expectations of the time, which Dunant is really trying to show. My book club felt this work, though dazzling at its start, was ultimately a disappointment.

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