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on 24 May 2006
Strongly disagree with the review below. As someone who loved "The Birth of Venus", I thoroughly enjoyed this novel too. The historical detail is spot on and gives a vivid picture of Venice, but at the same time it does not overwhelm the very touching story. The courtesan's dwarf (who tells the story) is a fascinating character with a unique "take" on all the events described. He is believable and Dunant gets him just right. Before I started I was a bit worried about the "courtesan" aspect and wondered if it would just be a tedious account of all her sexual exploits, but that was definitely not the case. Of course sex comes into the story, but Dunant makes it all much richer and more interesting. If you love a good historical story told in an authentic but entertaining way, then this book is for you.
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on 11 April 2006
Committed fans of historical fiction will already know and love Sarah Dunant's writing -- her last book, 'The Birth of Venus', was a storming best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic in 2004. For those who, like myself, have mostly tended to disregard the historical genre, thinking it either too constrained by dull facts or else too prone to flights of insubstantial romantic fancy, 'In the Company of the Courtesan' will come as a breathtaking revelation.

Dunant -- no mere dilettante novelist but a respected cultural commentator with an impressive body of work in arts, literature and current affairs programming for BBC television and radio -- pays great heed to working within the bounds of historical authenticity and scholarship. A Cambridge-educated historian herself, she clearly researches the background of her subjects in profound depth and painstaking detail, even taking the trouble to provide generous documentation of her diverse sources (just take a glance at the bibliography of the latest book).

Yet what she goes on to create is anything but factually laborious and dry. Her writing is both eloquent and dazzlingly evocative, conjuring an impression of time and place -- in this case, the Venice and (briefly) Rome of the mid-16th century -- that almost overwhelms the reader's senses. Sights, colours and sounds, textures, flavours and smells wash, tumble and seep from every page, immersing the reader in an experience that is both sumptuous and visceral.

Furthermore, elevating this book to a crucially different level compared to all the more lightweight historical or pseudo-historical dabblings piled high in today's airport bookstores and shopping malls, Dunant is wonderfully adept in her characterisation. She shows outstanding ability to populate her exquisitely tangible world with perfectly believable yet believably imperfect personalities, who both belong convincingly within their Renaissance Italian context and yet resonate with the sensibilities of the sophisticated contemporary reader.

From their most flippant conversational badinage to their most tortured, introverted passages of self-examination, her characters speak with credible, empathically persuasive voices. It's the subtlety and perceptiveness that's so refreshingly different from the clichéd norm of popular modern fiction. There are no gods and no monsters in Dunant's universe, no angels, no demons -- only humans, every one of them flawed yet each striving to be the best they can, given the limitations of their own capacity to imagine. In her earlier contemporary thrillers we could understand and even empathise with the motivations and aspirations of her 'villains' as much as her 'heroines'. The same is true here, only more so. Dunant never resorts to crude shortcuts or cyphers -- even peripheral characters are nuanced and believable. And she at no point descends into sentimentality.

Unlike many historical romances (some of which have, as it turns out, been made into major films), this fabulous confection is never over-sugared or too preoccupied with its own pretty allure. A keenly measured sense of reality is pervasive: while there is splendour and beauty aplenty to entrance the reader, squalor, cruelty and disgust lurk ready to bubble to the surface at every turn. And although the author's own voice is unfailingly compassionate, she does not flinch from exposing her characters' most unpalatable foibles. This book is a chronicle of courage and trust, scepticism and prejudice, steadfastness and enterprise, lust and loathing, vice and politics, loyalty and betrayal. It's a story of individuals marginalised by culture and society somehow finding solace and solidarity among others destined to be construed throughout their lives as 'other'.

And -- be warned -- it's a book that doesn't sell out with a Hollywood-friendly happy ending. I will not give away the plot -- which, like the Venice in which it unfolds, has a multitude of twists and turns, some of which land you quite suddenly in entirely unexpected places. Suffice it to say that readers of Dunant's earlier thrillers won't be disappointed -- the book's intricately woven strands create an atmosphere that's intriguing and suspenseful right the way to a tremendously moving denouement that, while in some ways inevitable, manages to enclose serendipitous pearls of poignant pleasure amid the anticipated pain.

Like the best sci-fi, good historical fiction depends for its effectiveness on a combination of a graphically portrayed imagined setting with qualities, traits and motivations in its major protagonists that capture something of the universality of human experience. 'In the Company of the Courtesan' is nothing short of a milestone for the historical novel: a tremendously moving, compelling exploration of relationship and resourcefulness that seamlessly intermingles the most tellingly specific with the most sweepingly timeless and existentially intrinsic.
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VINE VOICEon 30 August 2006
Last year I read Sarah Dunant's 'The Birth of Venus', it was my book of the year and I didn't want it to end. It was a hard act to follow and although I enjoyed 'In the Company of the Courtesan', it didn't quite reach the grade.

The book covered a lot of ground; from the ransacking of Rome in 1527, through the exile of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini and her dwarf companion, Bucino, to their eventual arrival in Venice and their subsequent struggles to establish themselves with little financial provision.

The characters are wonderful and beautifully described, as is the feel of the watery wonderland / slum that was Venice at the time. My main problem with the book were the passages of philosophical discussion on subjects such as the morals of prostitution and who is actually the sinner. Without these this would have been a masterpiece.

Sarah Dunant has established herself in the genre of historical fiction and I shall certainly be eagerly awaiting her next book.
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on 20 August 2008
I enjoyed the Birth of Venus, but only recently read Dunant's latest historical novel and I wasn't disappointed.

The story is told in the present tense by Bucini, who by his own description is an ugly dwarf who 'manages' the courtesan Fiametta. Not the most sympathetic of characters you would think, but Dunant draws him beautifully. Bucini takes us from Rome in 1527 to Venice and the difficult years that follow. Interesting secondary characters such as La Draga and Aretino push the story on.

The author gives some wonderful descriptions of Venice, from the poverty of the stinking backwater canals to the colourful richness of the churches and palaces. She carefully leaves Fiametta's occupation behind closed doors, allowing us to use our own imagination for the most part.

I think this book deserves the five stars that I'm giving it, because when I came to the last page, I felt I'd lost a friend in Bucini, and what better accolade can any reader give to an author. Well done Sarah Dunant.
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on 16 October 2013
The book, although secondhand was in good condition. It was hard-back and great value for money. I am loving the story, although I have not finished the book.
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on 2 March 2007
I loves SD's books -usually -Transgressions (strange but interesting)The Birth of Venus is just brilliant and romantic with wonderful historical detail. Snow Storms in a Hot Climate is a wonderful thriller. However, I did not enjoy this book could not get on with at all. Please SD write the next one with a view to keeping me enthralled.
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on 14 April 2006
I rushed to buy this book as I loved The Birth Of Venus (TBV) by the same author. It has been one of the most disappointing reads in recent times. The historical detail is good but the characterisation and the plot that was evident and rich in TBV is singularly missing in this. It is turgid and meanders along whilst you anticipate in vain for the story to pick up pace. Give this a miss. It is a complete waste of money.
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on 13 March 2016
Good copy of the book arrived very swiftly. No problems.
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