THE BIRTH OF VENUS
In this arresting tale of art, love and betrayal in 15th-century Florence, the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant seeks the freedom of marriage in order to paint, but finds that she may have bought her liberty at the cost of love and true fulfillment. Alessandra, 16, is tall, sharp-tongued and dauntingly clever. At first reluctant to agree to an arranged marriage, she changes her mind when she meets elegant 48-year-old Cristoforo, who is well-versed in art and literature. He promises to give her all the freedom she wants—and she finds out why on her wedding night. Her disappointment and frustration are soon overshadowed by the growing cloud of madness and violence hanging over Florence, nourished by the sermons of the fanatically pious Savonarola. As the wealthy purge their palazzos of "low" art and luxuries, Alessandra gives in to the dangerous attraction that draws her to a tormented young artist commissioned to paint her family's chapel. With details as rich as the brocade textiles that built Alessandra's family fortune, Dunant (Mapping the Edge ; Transgressions ; etc.) masterfully recreates Florence in the age of the original bonfire of the vanities. The novel moves to its climax as Savonarola's reign draws to a bloody close, with the final few chapters describing Alessandra's fate and hinting at the identity of her artist lover. While the story is rushed at the end, the author has a genius for peppering her narrative with little-known facts, and the deadpan dialogue lends a staccato verve to the swift-moving plot. Forget Baedecker and Vasari's Lives of the Artists . Dunant's vivid, gripping novel gives fresh life to a captivating age of glorious art and political turmoil. (Feb. 24)
Forecast: Dunant's foray into historical fiction (she is best known for her literary suspense novels) will inevitably be compared to Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier readers will certainly enjoy the novel, though its meatier historical background and more robust prose style set it apart. 11-city author tour.