Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Glassblower of Murano

I expected to love The Glassblower of Murano
, by Marina Fiorata, and I did…until about halfway through. Let’s focus on what I loved, which is basically what drew me to the novel in the first place. Venice first and foremost—it’s one of the most attractive settings on the planet. I’ve never been there but it holds a magical place in my mind, and Fiorata used rich and luscious language to paint a compelling setting. The ancient, dark, warm, wet, glistening Venice of the novel definitely satisfied my expectations and fed my desire to inhabit such a place.

I liked how Fiorata balanced the two stories that she wove together—the Glassblower of Murano is a label that applies to both the modern-day heroine, Leonora Manin, who leaves England to learn the art of glassblowing in Venice/Murano and her ancestor from the 17th century, Corradino Manin. I love historical fiction and I love stories about modern protagonists uncovering the secrets from the past—at times, The Glassblower of Murano reminded me of Possession: A Romance
by A.S. Byatt, a favorite from the early 90’s.

I liked how Fiorata drew on the wealth of stories in which Venice figures into—Merchant of Venice and Don’t Look Now being among the most prominent. It was fun to catch the illusions she slipped into dialogue and narrative, and they added to the complexity of the story.

I liked the overall plot, both that of 17th century Corradino betraying his city and his art for his daughter and modern-day Leonora searching for a way to reconcile her immediate past with who she feels she wants to be and how she wants to live.

I loved Fiorata’s description of the art of glass-blowing. Here’s a sample that I earmarked so that I could reread it:

Resolutely, she [Leonora] began. She took a small blob of gather from the fire, spun it for a second then transferred it deftly to a smaller blowpipe than she normally used. She took a short breath and exhaled, gently, as the parison grew like a water drop. Quickly she twisted off the bulb and began to marver it with her borselle tongs, making the creased depression between the two ears of the heart. But it was too late – the interior bubble had collapsed and separated, the lugs were different sizes. Leonora cooled the heart, and dropped it into a bucket at her feet, to be re-melted later. She began again. This time, she breathed the parison quickly, like a gasp, and had better success, but still this second heart joined the first in the bucket.

So why didn’t I end up loving this book that has so much going for it? Fiorata let me down. The prose that started out rich and lush and evocative of all that is mysterious and interesting became trite and purple and pretentious about mid-way through the book. I think that part of the problem is that the work tends to work like a poem in which almost every phrase connects to the theme, undercutting, reinforcing, reflecting, illustrating. The problem is that this isn’t sustainable over the length of a novel. This type of writing is common in short stories where every word counts, but it became tiresome in this novel. I found myself rolling my eyes—here we go again, talking about Leonora’s “peerless beauty”—and from that point, I lost belief in Leonora as a character and her story lost interest for me. It became predictable—another beautiful, strong-willed woman moving on from a lost marriage to a wild fling with a Romantic who may have a mysterious past. I am not a Romance reader, and this wasn’t what I bargained for. I wanted a historical novel that reached into modern day, not a Mary Sue escapade in which a beauty turns out to have incredible talent and wins her Prince Charming after thinking all was lost.

The final third of the book then got really strange as Fiorata moved from strictly two perspectives, that of Corradino and Leonora, to multiple—the most bizarre was the short chapter from the pov of the “curator of rare books at the Libreria Sansoviniana” where a “blonde beauty” goes to research 17th century glass-blowing. He calls her ‘la Principessa’ and fantasizes that he is her knight in shining armour, and then he exits the story. It almost seemed like Fiorata inserted an exercise she wrote while developing the plot outline, it felt so out of place. Near the end, we were also treated to some thoughts of Leonora’s love interest, Alessandro. We learn he hasn’t prayed since he was young, though we have no idea why not. “Who cares?” was the thought that sprang to mind when I read this, a thought that no author should engender in a reader. I like stories that are consistent—first person, omniscient, multiple povs, but consistently. This just seemed sloppy to me.

I’m glad I read The Glassblower of Murano—it’s a great novel in the first half, a good novel for another quarter, and silly novel at the end. I did love reading about glassblowing, and I did enjoy a lot of Fiorata’s prose, the love story just didn’t ring true for me.


  1. I read this a year or so ago, so it's faded a bit from memory. I enjoyed it but more as a comfort type read. It can be really hard to sustain more than one storyline--perhaps it could have done with a bit more editing. The Venetian setting is a nice distraction, though!

  2. >The Venetian setting is a nice distraction, though!

    Totally! Thanks for stopping by, Danielle.

  3. OK, I've had that on my possibly list for quite sometime, but I'm fast learning to trust your judgment, Jane and I think this is going to have to bite the dust. There is too much out there that I do want to read without another book that folds halfway though. There are a lot about at the moment. Sometimes I wonder if editors actually read more than the first half a dozen chapters.

  4. Ann - I agree, too much to read to spend time on a book that fades mid-stream. I think endings are particularly hard to do well, but sometimes it feels like editors intrude too much, coaxing/convincing authors to add elements that sell versus letting them tell their own story in their own way.

  5. Like you, I'm drawn to this one for its setting -- gorgeous, lush Venice! I've seen a few reviews so far that were mixed, and I definitely think I'd get frustrated if the prose became pretentious! You're so right -- if I have to pause and ask myself "Who cares?" while reading, we have a major issue. Probably will skip this one -- at least for now. Great review!