Today I am reviewing a book my mum passed to me about a year ago. I knew nothing about it at the time and so 'The Birth of Venus' sat on the shelf for a few months in the queue. Then I began to notice people on Twitter and so forth saying how good it was (even though it was published in 2003). Plus my mother has pretty good taste, so in November last year I decided to give it a go. I read the jacket and the testimonials and felt a quiver of excitement. I could see why Mum had been drawn to it and why she thought I might like it - it is set in Medici Florence and is steeped in beautiful art. Definitely my sort of read. Also, all the notable newspapers heap praise upon it, all the way down the back cover: a 'moving, gripping and impressive work' - Sunday Times, 'magnificent' - Daily Telegraph, 'Erotic and gripping' - Independent on Sunday and, in my opinion the worthiest of all praise from the Observer: 'As soon as I finished this book I wanted to go straight back and read it all over again.'
I don't know if it was all the hype or the fact that the baby wasn't (still isn't) sleeping so my concentration was lacking but I had a couple of false starts where I struggled to get past the first two chapters. But all those recommendations nagged at me and so I persevered. In the end I got into it and finished about a month ago. I then postponed writing this review while I pondered. In the end I decided that the simplest thing is to be honest and say that I have mixed feelings about this book. It is supremely written. And I mean absolutely gorgeously written. Every sentence flows and weaves expertly, bringing Medici Florence to life in an incredibly accomplished and evocative manner. I could never hope to write something so beautifully. In this sense I totally agree with all the praise. Where I did struggle a little, however, was with the plot.
The heroine of the piece is a young Florentine girl, Alessandra Cecchi. She has a place in her family and within the structure of society but she is not fulfilled by it. She is intellectually hungry yet is constantly required to control her desire for knowledge, exploration, life and art. She is herself a talented raw artist with a level of ability which would have blossomed had she been given the encouragement and tuition of her male counterparts. This is her struggle. As the Medicis fall and Florence is plunged into dangerous chaos she must make difficult decisions and painful sacrifices yet she is young and naïve and these decisions have consequences that she does not foresee. These are intense and important themes and drew me in but I did find the pace slow at times. There isn't an obvious plot to pull the reader along, although the prologue does raise significant questions which helped to keep me reading.
When I had finished the book I was glad that I had read it and it will stay with me for a while. If you like historical settings and are not looking for a page-turner of a plot, this is an exquisitely written intelligent work which should please.
I really enjoyed this book apart from the end - I just didn't believe the main character would have made the choice she did in the final chapter, it seemed out of character (not saying too much overtly so as not to spoil it for people who haven't read it!) What did you think?
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I love most types of fiction - crime, mystery, fantasy. Oh, and historical fiction of course and middle-grade books and, well, you get the picture.
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