Sarah Dunant’s IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN tells the story of Fiammetta, an accomplished Roman courtesan, and her dwarf Bucino. It is 1527, the year that the Emperor Charles V sacked Rome, and so Fiammetta is obliged to move to Venice with Bucino to save her business.

How does a courtesan find clients in 1527? In church of course. The talented ones know how to hold a man’s attention, even as she does nothing.

She sits in her seat in the pew, dressed in her best, having taken considerable trouble with the styling of her hair on the back of her head, so that it is interesting to look at. She has chosen her church well, eschewing any hell-fire sermons, and selecting instead a church that is the home of a scholar who has never heard of an hourglass.

As the older members of the congregation nod off, the marriageable young women let their veils drop away from their faces, so that they can catch the eye of their young men. Against this fluttering screen, the courtesans size up the congregation, looking for wealthy patrons. They sit erect, heads held high, while everyone arounds them slumps with boredom. Gently moving their heads, they bestow glances on wealthy gentleman. They choose someone with a half-smile, and the slow caress of a tongue against the lips. Outside church, the patron is netted with glances and head-tilts as they appear to admire the magnificent architecture that makes up Venice.

What a wonderful imagination Sarah Dunant has, and how vividly she makes this come to life. I wish I could say that the whole of her novel was like this. But it was not.

The main problem I had was with the way the story was told. I would have preferred the action to have been shown through scenes rather than told to me with pages and pages of narrative. I also think that the beginning was problematic. I think the novel would have been stronger had it started with Fiammetta arriving in Venice after being traumatized by the Sack of Rome, rather than showing that backstory at the beginning of the novel. In any event, I loved the church scene, read on for a few more pages, and finally put the book down, because I just couldn’t bring myself to wade through any more narrative. A great pity.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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