10 February 2012

The Midwife of Venice - Random Reader Challenge

Historical fiction is a genre I truly enjoy. I also enjoy challenges and if the challenge is short and easily accomplished, all the better. That makes the Random Reader Historical Fiction Challenge a big time winner. The book I chose for this challenge is The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich.

There are so many accolades out there for this book that my expectations were huge going in. I expected epic/emotional/life changing. What I got was a really good, solid debut novel. It was hard for me to sort those two things out. This is why I try to avoid reading reviews of a book I want to read. It takes work to sort out my feelings for the book on its own merits. Hopefully I have managed to do that.

Before the book even begins our Jewish midwife, Hannah has had some major life events that set the scene for the story:
  1. Her husband Isaac has headed out to sea to make some much needed cash. Sadly, instead of earning money for himself and his wife, he is captured and sold into slavery in Malta. Somehow, Hannah must find a way to pay 200 ducats for his release. An unattainable sum for a poor midwife living in the Jewish ghetto.
  2. As a caring and effective midwife, Hannah has seen women die trying to deliver stubborn babies. As she considers options and tries desperately to save her patients, she realises that what she needs is a tool that will help encourage the baby out of the birth canal. And so she invents her 'birthing spoons' - a forerunner of modern day forceps. 
  3. Hannah is barren: unable to conceive a child of her own.
These points are explained in the book but the pain Hannah must feel about each of these realities in her life, is absent. They are simply presented as fact. This is actually my only complaint about this novel as a whole. The feelings that should have been overpowering as Hannah puts her life, and the lives of all those who reside in the ghetto, at risk for the possibility of freeing her husband, didn't reach me. But Hannah's story is only half of The Midwife of Venice. The chapters flip back and forth between Hannah's struggle to free Isaac and Isaac's reality as a slave in Malta.

Obviously, as a slave, Isaac's life is not all sunshine and lollipops. The horrors of his life were not the focus of his chapters, though, rather we are treated to be introduced to a man who doesn't waste time complaining about his lot in life. Instead he spends his time trying to better his chances of escaping and finding his way home to his beloved Hannah. I must say, I actually enjoyed Isaac's story more than Hannah's.

Overall, The Midwife of Venice is a triumph as a debut book and I'm glad this challenge finally pushed me to read it. It is a fast, easy read with lots of meat. I would definitely recommend it but try and separate the reality of the novel from the overly enthusiastic reviews out there .

Character Development         4
Editing                                      5
Sex                                            0
Violence                                  0
Romance                                 0
Readability/Flow                     5

A Taste from page 171:
When the man and his mare were out of site, Isaac gave himself over to rage, cursing the God who had abandoned him. His last hope was gone. He might as well throw himself into the sea. Better a fast death than a slow starvation. If he failed to deliver Gertrudis' heart to Joseph, he would be on the next galley to leave port. Even if he succeeded in wooing the woman for that oaf, what was gained? He would have his freedom but no passage off the island.


  1. I absolutely love your idea of rating each element separately.
    I lobe historical romance too. Just love it

  2. I have this book on my TBR pile and your great review has prompted me to move it up closer to the top!

    Thanks for the fantastic review.


  3. I'm always up for something new, and The Midwife of Venice sounds like something I'd enjoy. Thanks for your detailed review!

  4. This one sounds really good and I so wanna read it too :D

  5. Thanks very much for your interesting review. I like your 6 criteria. Roberta

  6. Sounds good. I can see how the lack of emotion in regards to some pretty big events would stick out to me as well.

  7. I realize you posted this over a week ago but I have been reading several of the entries on the February in Venice Reading Challenge and when I saw this review by you I wanted to read it!
    I haven't read this book...yet! I love the name Hannah and I find it a bit strange that the 3 points you make about things that have happened in Hannah's life are stated factually but the pain Hannah most likely experienced from them isn't discussed. The situations all sound very painful. And, for me, #3 is one I can relate to because I cannot have children and for the past couple of years this has caused me immense pain. It seems so odd that the author wouldn't incorporate the pain from this events in Hannah's life, particularly when dealing with the first 2 means risking the lives of others!

    I like that we get Isaac's story, too and it's about how he's doing what he has to do to get out of there.

    This book sounds really interesting and I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for a terrific and honest review!


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