Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In The Company of The Courtesan: A Novel by Sarah Dunant

# Hardcover: 384 pages

# Publisher: Random House (February 14, 2006)

# Subject: Historical - General

Almost every culture has them. In India, they are known as known as "Tawaifs", in Japan they are "Geishas" and in Europe they were known as "Courtesans". According to Wikipedia, a courtesan is a person paid and/or supported for the giving of social companionship and intimate liaisons to one or more partners.

In 16th-century Rome where the novel opens, a deliciously corrupt Catholic Church was in power in the Vatican. The members of the church had all taken the mandatory vows of celibacy but it didn't stop them from wanting children in order to further their political ambitions. They, ofcourse, could not take wives and nor would it be proper for them to be seen in back alleys with a common prostitute. They wanted a woman proficient in the art of conversation, poetry, dance, literature and painting, who would sleep with them and not demand marriage and thus, the courtesan was born.

25-year old Fiammeta Biancini a famous and much sought after courtesan in Rome is one of the three protagonists of Sarah Dunant's new novel "In the Company of a Courtesan" . When the novel opens, Rome is being plundered by the severe and dour Luther protestants and Fiametta has to escape to Venice with just the clothes on her back to build a new life there and to remake her fortune. She takes only one very trusted servant with her, an ugly dwarf (courtesans were well-known for having exotic side-kicks) named, Bucino.

We readers are treated to Bucino's perspective of their story which I think is brilliant idea on the author's part. Courtesans tended to be vain, self-absorbed, tough-as-nails young women and all these rather unflattering qualities may have shown up had the story been told from Fiametta's perspective. Bucino, on the other hand, is a lovable, delightful, witty and sharp creature. Although he was devoted to Fiametta he was able to see both her faults and her strengths, also, being the servant, he was less conspicious on the roads of Venice - he was able to go places and see and hear things, something that Fiametta may never have been able to do.

The third protagonist of the novel and probably the best-loved by the author since she devotes so much space to it in her novel, is the city of Venice. There is enough descriptive material in there to write a whole non-fiction book on Venice in the 16th-century. But again, Venice is a good choice for the setting of the novel because although it was the epitome of Christianity in Italy at that time, it was also a big trading port and hence, highly multicultural, allowing the author to pack her book with diverse characters, including a Turkish aristocrat, Jewish merchants, a suspected witch named La Draga and so on. Real historical figures also show up in the book with Titian, the famous artist, in a cameo role and the writer Pietro Aretino who also lived in Venice at that time.

I do applaud the author for resisting the urge to write a paen to Venice and its canals as most writers of historical fiction are want to do. Instead, she presents it to us just as it might have appeared in the 16th century - stinky roads, busy, crowded marketplaces, unscrupulous vendors, mystical healers, witches, whores and so on...

In true Sarah Dunant style, there are lots of twists, turns and plots to the story, but I will desist from letting on anything that happens in the book because I am aware that several readers of this blog are hoping to read the book. In closing I will say that "In The Company of a Courtesan" is a fitting successor to "The Birth of Venus".


hellomelissa said...

wonderful! i can hardly wait to read it. maybe i'll get it for a blogday present if i win!! i'm almost done with 'max tivoli'... it would make a good companion book for 'the time traveler's wife.' i'll try to do a quick review on my blog when i'm done.

Dorothy W. said...

This book sounds like a lot of fun -- I listened to the audio of The Birth of Venus and like it a lot. Thanks for the review!

Angela in Europe said...

Have you ever seen the movie "Dangerous Beauty". It is a totally unrealistic girl movie about the courtesans of Venice. I loved it, although I am sure it had no other value than being wildly entertaining.

sruthi said...

lotus this book sounds great. I'm going to read it once i finish the space between us, which i just picked up. thanks for all the great suggestions!:)

sruthi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
booklogged said...

Excellent review. I enjoyed Birth of Venus by Dunant and wanted to read more by her. This one sounds wonderful.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey, Melissa!

Yes, I heard it was like Time Traveler's Wife in reverse. Please do put a review up, I would love to read it.

And good luck with the book giveaway! :)

Hi, Dorothy

I love audio books - just haven't bought any new ones lately.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Angela

Wildly entertaining is good! :) I will have to look into renting "Dangerous Beauty". Thanks for letting me know.

Hey, Sruthi,

You're welcome. Hope you enjoy "The Space Between Us'. My online book club read it last month and it got very mixed reviews. Some hated it, others loved it. As you know, I loved it! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, booklogged

I think you will enjoy this one, although there are people that insist "The Birth of Venus" is better. I think they were both very good.

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Lotus,
when I opened your blog and saw the cover, it just made me think of other things...of how a book lures and seduces you ever so subtly into its charm and that once ensnared, you cannot leave its world whether fantasy or real - until the last page is turned. A cover like this, is why one of my favourite bookstores in England, when I'm there, is always and always, Hatchards of Piccadilly. It is a cosy little shop with different floors and is the official royal bookshop. Of course, you'll know it well. But it's just the romantic way they display art books, biographies and all kinds, with such alluring covers that look as if they were watchful guests in a prestigous ball or having intimate conversations at a cocktail. The display of hundreds of book jackets in the fashion that you've shown, invite, entice, tease and kiss your senses until you cannot resist a pick-me-up. Strange, how this picture brought back a splendid memory. Thanks

Guinness_Girl said...

I loved the Birth of Venus, so I suspect I'll also enjoy this one! Thanks for the review!

Lotus Reads said...

How beautifully expressed, Susan! I love the image of all these immaculately dressed books standing around as though at a cocktail party while you, the browser, stop by each one trying to get to know them better so that you can decide which one to call a friend. There must be a science to displaying these books so that we get hooked! ;)

Sadly, I have never been to Hatchards of Picadilly although I have been to Picadilly numerous times. I will definitely have to look for it when I am in London this summer, thanks for pointing me to it.

Thanks also for rekindling my appreciation for book covers. I do marvel at the cover art of a lot of my books, but I don't think I spend enough time on it as I should.

Here's a nice link for anyone interested in book jackets:

I'm sure there are others, too. I will just have to look for them.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, gg

If you do read it, I would love to know what you think. Most people compare it to The Birth of Venus and either love it or are disappointed by it. I prefer to think they are both good but in different ways.

Janelle Martin said...

This is on my pile to read in the next few weeks so I'll be interested to see how my opinion connects with yours.

booklogged said...

susan abraham, I wish I could write like you. What a beautifully rendered comment.

booklogged said...

lotus, I just checked out the book cover web site. There were some covers that drew me in -- my list grows longer.

Dave said...

Dear Lotus,
You make me want to read every book you review.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Janelle!

Yes, that would be great. It would be wonderful to discuss the book with you!

Hi, booklogged

Susan does have a wonderful way with words - I love her short stories and poems and can't wait for her first novel to be published.

Wasn't that a great site for book covers? Some of them are so seductive, they just draw you in and you are powerless to resist!

Lotus Reads said...

Awww, so nice of you to say, Dave!

sruthi said...

lotussssss!!! you have GOT to stop recommending and tempting me with all these books because i'm currently in the middle of 3 of them and i'm not getting time to finish! and just as i'm finishing one i read a SWEET review like this and i'm like...okkkkk time to add this one to this list! for real though, thanks for reading so much, it helps me out! hahah. i just started the space between us and i'm going to be on a train to the suburbs tomorrow so hopefully i will get a good chunk of it done, and I'll let you know how i liked it! byee!:)

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Booklogged, thank you. I loved the photo on your profile and I've left a comment on your lovely blog.
And Lotus, to you what I can say. But love always.

Lotus Reads said...

Sruthi, you sweet thing, you! :) Just wait till I launch my book-a-day campaign, you'll be tearing your hair out, guaranteed! ;)

Seriously tho', thanks so much for your comments, so glad you're enjoying the book recommendations!

Lotus Reads said...

Lots of love back atcha, Susan! :)

Dave said...

Ok lotus I'm ready for the next book review.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Dave and thank you for your impatience! :)

I'm only 50 pages into my next novel, so it might be a few days. Think you can wait that long? :))

Beloved dreamer said...

I Just received this book yesterday and can't wait to read it. Also bought the "Rug Merchant" My TBR mountain grows ever larger but then I love it.
I will try to review the books on my blog, ever hoping to get better at this.

Dave said...

I guess so lotus. I'm reading another Steven Pressfield novel. Its called the Tides of War. It takes place in Greece during the Peloponnesian War --- this is the war between Sparta and the Peloponnesian League led by Athens, the time of Socrates and Alcibiades somewhere between 451bc and 400 bc. Great stuff!

Lotus Reads said...

Dearest Beloved,

I hope you enjoy "The Rug Merchant", I look forward to your review.

Dear Dave,

So glad you're enjoying your book. Actually I just remembered, I have a non-fiction book that needs to be reviewed - you might have your review sooner than you think! ;)

Dave said...