Sarah Dunant, “In the Company of the Courtesan”

I don’t think I’d be brave enough to write a novel in which the last 50 pages subverted the previous 325. Just think how careful you’d have to be, laying it all out beforehand, from major plot points to dialogue to the characters’ thoughts and reactions. Everything has to work from two very different angles. And I think it probably helps to have a strong narrator, which Sarah Dunant does. In the Company of the Courtesan is told from the point of view of  Bucino Teodoldi, a dwarf, who serves as major-domo to Fiammetta Bianchini, the courtesan of the title. He is smart, well-read, and cynical. Well, you would be, as a dwarf in 16th century Italy, where you are at best a joke and at worst a punching bag.

Titian's "Venus of Urbino"

Dunant, as I’ve said here before, is a terrific writer so Bucino’s narrative voice is completely absorbing. We readers buy his point of view. But I have to admit that I was wondering a little bit where Dunant was going with the story. It was pleasant to read, but seemed to be drifting somewhat, until suddenly Dunant turned the whole thing upside down. And once she does, you absolutely must go back over the tale in your head, and you start to consider characters and incidents and even themes — glass and water, in this case — which take on a completely new meaning. I don’t want to ruin the plot by saying one more thing about it.

As in The Birth of Venus and Sacred Hearts, In the Company of the Courtesan is set in sixteenth-century Italy. In fact the 1527 Sack of Rome provides the launching pad for the plot, as Bucino and Fiammetta, ruined and wounded in the invasion, retreat to Fiammetta’s home town of Venice, where they must claw their way back into business in a different kind of city. Dunant makes much of what is remarkable about Venice, both its topography and the immensely sophisticated polyglot population. ( I can’t say I’m entirely sure what Titian is doing in there, except to paint Fiammetta and add historical window-dressing.) I read this trilogy out of order — Sacred Hearts is the last in the series — but even so it’s impressive and enjoyable, dramatic and stimulating. I wonder what Dunant’s working on now…

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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