Saturday, March 11, 2006

Courted by a Courtesan


After reading The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, I was so delighted with her writing and story-weaving expertise that I decided to read her latest book, In the Company of the Courtesan, immediately thereafter. Once again, I was thrilled. It's not that In the Company of the Courtesan is better than The Birth of Venus; they are equally strong in both plot and character development. However, there is something particularly enchanting about Dunant's most recent work.

As the title suggests, In the Company of the Courtesan is about, well, being in the company of a courtesan. Fiammetta Bianchini is the lovely heroine, her beauty and excellent reputation as a courtesan spreading her fame across both Rome and Venice. However, the book is narrated by the courtesan's partner/confidant/best friend/pimp, a brilliant, witty and loving dwarf named Bucino. Bucino is an absolutely fabulous character, for lack of better adjectives, and Dunant's choice of using him is the narrator is perfect. I don't think this book would have been quite so excellent had the story not been told from his perspective.

Anyway, to get on with the actual plot line... (I'm rambling yet again. Surprise, surprise. I don't think that it helps that I'm listening to Joni Mitchell while writing this. Odd choice for a Renaissance novel, I know, but, hey, it's a dreary, rainy night and Joni just seemed appropriate.)

So, as I was saying, In the Company of the Courtesan begins by showing Fiammetta and Bucino's successful and comfortable life in Rome. She is Rome's most famous and adored courtesan, and Bucino is also known for his shrewd business sense and comic relief. However, their cushy situation soon takes a turn for the worst with the sack of Rome by Charlemagne's troops. The French, Spanish and ravenous Lutheran Germans (those pesky Germans!) wreak havoc on the city of Rome, destroying both its beauty, its people and its spirit. While Fiammetta and Bucino are spared, they do not escape from the ruins of the once great city unscathed. Fiammetta's head is brutally shaved (with knives and carving scissors) by two hideous witches of German soldiers' wives (You want to beat the snot after them when you read about how they treat poor, beautiful, loveable Fiammetta.), and she and Bucino travel for miles and miles, without shelter or food, to reach their final destination: Venice. Fiammetta's home town, Venice will hopefully save her and Bucino from desolation and ruin.

Thus, the two find themselves in Venice, struggling to "set up shop" and return to their once almost noble status in society. However, their route is not always smooth sailing, and there are many twists and turns along their climb to the top of the Venetian social ladder. With the help of a healer known as La Draga, Fiammetta's hair, and beauty, return with a brighter glow than before, and while she and Bucino manage to build up their business to its former glory, there are still people and events that effect their lives in ways they could have never guessed.

With intriguing characters and intricate story lines, In the Company of the Courtesan is a splendid book. Despite its unconventional leading players and plot, Dunant's latest addition to the literary world is still heart wrenching and bitter sweet. I simply adored it, and I hope you will as well.

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