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. And if you know the geography of Old Florence, you also know that even today, it's small enough that you can't help running into these guys.
So what keeps this book from perfection? In my view, just two things:
First, modern slang occasionally surfaces that feels incongruent to 21st century readers who've been drawn into a setting that's more than 500 years old. Yeah, I know we're reading a "fictional translation" of Italian narration to English, but it's still a little jarring to read present-day colloquialisms sprinkled throughout a novel that's mostly placid in tone. Contrast this with erotic passages which for the most part, are devoid of crudeness (though at times described a little too self-consciously).
Second, about those erotic passages. There aren't many. They're executed, for the most part, with great sensitivity. I hate sex described in clinical terms. But a couple of times Dunant comes too close to projecting thoughts into Alessandra's narration that feel pretentious, a little too lyrical or metaphorical, even from the voice of an adult who's "looking backward." Do women really string metaphors about sex together, as you read here, even in their most reflective and introspective moments? As a result, what's supposed to "feel" like sexual "liberation" rings a little false. And I still don't get the stuff involving the tattoos (you'll know what I mean when you get to it).
Suspending disbelief is obviously required when great figures creep into a novel. "The Birth of Venus" weaves its "tale" cleverly, but I wish Dunant's Alessandra had gone no further when she describes the return, years later, of the man who remains an important figure in her life.
She beautifully says, "We had always been bound to each other through the power of longing, even when we understood nothing of desire."
I wished Dunant had stopped there. Instead, she plows ahead with the inevitable "scene" that would've been better suggested than described in a way that feels a little forced, posed and "artsy." I became aware of Dunant's writing. And this isn't supposed to happen. A great story is supposed to make you less conscious of great prose.
I'm still baffled about the mysterious man who's never identified by name. We're given a few clues, but he remains a cryptic figure, a brooding and tortured artist who returns years later so worldly and wise. He reads like every woman's fantasy, a Renaissance romantic too good to be true.
In the end, these may be small quibbles.
It may not be necessary to know the "Who's Who" of the Renaissance, e.g., Savonarola, Medici, the whole lot of 'em, and it may not be necessary to walk the streets of present-day Florence to "get" what's in "The Birth of Venus." But they do enhance the enjoyment of a story that's set in one of the world's most romantic cities. I hope readers less familiar with Florentine art and history get the same wallop I did after finishing it.
A helpful tip: remember this book is being told in the first person AND in the past tense. This way, when you reach the final 30 pages of Alessandra's story, you'll realize you're being set up for a twist.
To my relief, it's unpredictable and immensely satisfying. Without giving it away, "The Birth of Venus" closes unconventionally yet beautifully; optimistically yet realistically; quietly yet without being thrown into the throes of depression.
I still prefer non-fiction over fiction. But as I once wrote about another historical novel I equally enjoyed, if more books were written like Dunant's "The Birth of Venus," I'd stop going to the movies.