Monday, April 30, 2012

The Midwife of Venice

I have been eagerly anticipating reading Roberta Rich's The Midwife of Venice for months now, being completely enthralled by Venice at the moment and eager to explore it in fiction as well as non-fiction.

I enjoyed the book and found the two main characters, wife and husband, Hannah and Isaac Levi, and their story interesting.  I definitely liked how Rich incorporated 16th century Venetian and Jewish terms info their narrative, and the glossary at the end was helpful but not really necessary as she did a good job of explaining terms in context.

However, this was a quick read.  In fact, that's my issue with the book and why I gave it only 3 stars on my GoodReads review.  The novel is too short for the story that Rich wants to tell. With the exception of only a few scenes, it reads mostly as a detailed synopsis rather than a rich, deeply layered, complex story of a different world. 

Hannah is a midwife, but we only see her deliver one baby. She is a lifelong resident of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, but we only see her interact with one person from the ghetto, her rabbi.  Her scenes with her estranged sister, Jessica, are told with breakneck speed, and there's no time to get to know Jessica as we attempt to understand what drove her to live as she did.  I'm not a particularly skeptical reader--I tend to believe what a narrator tells me about a character--but I can't get to know, love, empathize, and relate to a character when I don't see them and hear them but am only told about them.

I would much rather have learned about Jessica and Isaac from the beginning--how did she become a midwife, was it uncommon for wives to work, how did Isaac feel about her work--and I don't mean just backstory narrative, I mean real scenes that grab you and make you feel what the characters are feeling.  Most importantly, I would have loved to read the scene in which she invented her birthing spoons, not just heard about it, briefly in flashback.  Again, one of the most interesting parts of the story was Hannah's ministrations to Tarzi, the Turkish woman who wanted to stop having so many babies.  The appeal of this story to me for lo these many months was partly Venice but also partly the whole midwifery stuff. 

And as for Isaac. I liked him, but again only superficially.  I know nothing about his work as a merchant of Venice.  I only got to see him as a prisoner on Malta, and then the story moved way too fast.  I would rather have seen him stay at the convent for a longer time, seen more of his life under evil Joseph's whip, and the growing relationship between him and the lovely artist, Gertrudis.  I loved the story of him rescuing the  boy on the ship, but I hated the fact that I really have no idea what happened to him after he jumped off the boat.

The speed of the narrative undermines the "willing suspension of disbelief" that is essential for a reader to believe a story.  Without having a plethora of detailed, realistic, conversation-laden scenes in which I can  immerse myself in a story, the holes in the fabric become glaring and troubling.  I've been looking forward to reading this story for months, and I got through the book in three days.  A Diana Gabaldon novel takes me a good month, or at least a couple of weeks if I put all my other reading aside!

I'm looking forward to Rich telling more of Hannah and Isaac's story as they journey to Constantinople, but I hope she slows down and writes a much longer book.  Her story and her characters deserve it.


  1. Thank you for a lovely review.

  2. Too bad this one didn't work well for you! Great review, however!

  3. Ever since "Venice in February", I've been craving more stories with a Venetian setting. Despite the shortcomings, I'm still curious enough to add this one to my wish list.

  4. I wasn't sure this one would be for me. Thanks for your honest review Jane.

  5. Huh. I'm sorry this didn't offer you the depth that you were looking for. Have you read Mitchell James Kaplan's BY FIRE, BY WATER? It's about Jews in the era of Christopher Columbus in Spain. Very good and quite meaty!

  6. Sometimes I get done with a book and wish it were longer - but I would much rather that it be because I loved it so much I didn't want it to end. Still, this one does sound enjoyable.