The Birth Of Venus is Sarah Dunant’s first historical novel (not her debut though, as I had wrongly gathered from my pre-reading research on the book). It is set again during the Renaissance, for which Dunant seems to have developed a certain panache, and tells the story of Alessandra – a young Florentine woman and a true person of her time – with facility for painting, a sharp mind and admiration for art and ancient philosophy.
The place and role of women in the age of revival is a main theme throughout the book. The snake, in one form or another, comes to symbolize much of the controversy in their position – weakness and failure, desire and strength and, in the end, the way to freedom.
Alessandra cannot be what she could have, had she been a man, and as she comes of age, and tries to figure out who she is, it turns out her choice is confined to a certain number of things – basically a nun or a wife. The limitation becomes ever more frustrating when a foreign painter joins the household to paint the family chapel. He is the embodiment of temptation for our young heroine, holding both the key to her becoming a painter herself and the mystery of her awakening desire.
As if that is not enough, Savonarola comes to power and Florence too faces an identity crisis. Is she the New Athens or the New Jerusalem? Alessandra constantly weighs the two, refusing to accept either is entirely evil but seeing there is no reconciliation coming between them. As protagonist and city get swept in a whirlwind of uncertainty, we might have gotten a genius of a book. However, I did not quite get there.
There is thematic richness to The Birth of Venus that made the reading worthwhile, but, purely in story and characters, it falls short to satisfy. I disagree with the general opinion that the ending was surprising – to me it felt made-up and illogical. And Alessandra – well, she is every opinionated stubborn girl you have ever read about. I did not quite get where her rebellion was, although it is constantly referred to. In the end, she was quite the passive observer to her own rebelliousness. If I got a whiff of real female strength it was from Alessandra’s mother. Not even Erilla was complete and believable enough to carry out that impression.
In short, this is not a bad book. It is way better than most historical fiction out there. But having read Dunant’s Borgia books, I know how much more she can deliver in terms of plot lines and, mostly, strong characters.