Top critical review
Macho Men in Venice
on 27 June 2013
'Stone Virgin' is the story of three men, all from very different backgrounds and generations, linked by a beautiful stone virgin. In the 15th century the sculptor Girolamo carves an exquisite statue of the Madonna for a group of Venetian monks. This wonderful work costs him his life, after he begins an intense affair with his model. Three centuries later, the statue ends up in the garden of a wealthy elderly Venetian, whose young wife consummates her affair with her husband's secretary Zianni in front of it. And in the 1970s, in the main part of the story, Simon Raikes, a young sculpture restorer, travels to Venice to restore the Madonna. Haunted by strange visions, Raikes becomes increasingly obsessed not only with the Madonna and its past but also with Chiara, the beautiful wife of the sculptor Litsov who lives on one of the Venetian islands. And his combined obsessions drive him to uncharacteristically passionate action.
Venice, art and romantic passion sounded a good combination, and indeed the sections about sculpture and picture restoration were fascinating, as were most of the descriptions of the city. Unfortunately I found the very macho male characters very irritating. Unsworth seems determined to prove that the theory that the average man thinks of sex once a minute is true. Whenever Girolamo and Simon aren't sculpting or restoring, they are fantasizing in depth about women in general and the women they love (Bianca for Girolamo, Chiara for Simon) in particular. But their feelings seem to be more connected to lust than real romantic love - they're not very interested in the women as individuals, only in their beauty and grace, and in whether they give sexual satisfaction. This means that the novel's romantic elements are unconvincing. Zianni, who doesn't do anything apart from write and fantasize about sex (he's a sort of second-rate Casanova) is worse; I believe the sections about his experiences are meant to be funny, but instead they are repetitive and boring, and far too long drawn out. It doesn't help that the main women in the book are ciphers rather than fully realized characters - we never get any of the story from their perspective or get to know them and their feelings, and have to make do with long discussions of their limbs, graceful ways of moving, breasts, hair, skill in bed etc etc. This ultimately makes the book feel somewhat misogynistic, with woman's purpose being largely to serve as a sex object (Chiara even makes a point to Simon about this at one point). I also felt that the decision to turn the novel into a thriller or who-dunnit towards the end didn't work, particularly as the mystery collapsed in the final pages.
Unsworth is an accomplished writer and full of good ideas. But the 'sex sex sex' focus of this novel, and the sketchy portrayal of the female characters made it a somewhat frustrating read for me. Coupled with the misanthropy of 'After Hannibal' it hasn't really encouraged me to explore his writing further - which may be a pity as he sounds an interesting man.