Art, history, politics, sex, lust, and love are all combined in this truly engaging story set in the city of Florence in the 1490's. The Catholic Church is fighting for supremacy, as a world of fundamentalist Christian doctrine is bought to life. And Durant does a fine job of recreating this rich and provocative period in European history, as she deftly and powerfully brings to life the desires, fears and hopes of Alessandra Cecchi, the young protagonist of the story. Through a complex, yet common sense first person narrative Durant creates a world steeped in rich historical drama and tragedy, as the lies, hypocrisy, betrayals and family loyalties of the Cecchi family are laid bare.
The focus of this masterful first person narrative is the young, headstrong and willful Alessandra who, not quite fifteen becomes intoxicated with a young painter's abilities, when his father commissions him to paint the chapel walls of their Florentine palazzo. For Alessandra her teenage freedom is threatened when her parents arrange to marry her to a wealthy, much older man who is having a clandestine affair with another member of the family. The family struggles are played out against the backdrop of civil unrest between the followers of the fundamentalist monk Savonarola and those of the Medici family, with their love of comfort, sumptuousness, art and sculpture.
Part historical treatise and part love story, The Birth of Venus is packed with religious and visual symbolism, as Durant effortlessly describes a truly extraordinary period in history. The strength of the narrative is in the recreation of the sights, sounds and smells of the period: From the bloody details of Alessandra's pregnancy, to the gory descriptions of the plague, and from the explicit sex scenes of Alessandra's virginal wedding night, to the beautiful descriptions of the paintings of the time. The choices one makes in life and the conflicts between faith, and basic human need are at the center of this fine novel. We see this reflected in Alessandra, as she grows and matures and meets many dire challenges. This is a gorgeous novel and is highly recommended.