Sunday, July 15, 2012

Guest Review: The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich
Published in paperback February 2012 by Gallery Books
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher

I made a terrible mistake at Mother's Day. I had looked at the pile of books my mom had sitting waiting to be read and decided not to give her Catherine The Great by Robert Massie because she already had too many books. Me. I did that. Me, who wishes that people would give me books for birthdays and Christmas despite the fact that I have far more books than I will finish in the next few years. Plus, I had forgotten something about my mom - she's retired. So if she wants to sit down and read all day, she can. When I gave her The Midwife of Venice to read recently, that's pretty much what she did. Because she loved it, I suggested she write a review. Even with a cut on her finger that pretty much relegated her to resorting to the hunt-and-peck method of typing (and if you knew how fast my mom can type, you'd know just how frustrating that was for her!), she had the review for me in a little more than a day. Here's what she has to say about The Midwife of Venice:

When I sit down to read a book, I have several objectives: I want a good story, characters well-developed that come alive and that make me want to know them better and better and create loneliness when they are gone, descriptive phrases to help visualize the environment, and enough fact that I can learn something about the setting.  I am delighted to say that MIDWIFE OF VENICE filled my needs in each of these categories.  For several days after I finished the book (I was so drawn into the book that I abandoned all chores and just read), I thought about Hannah and wanted to know more.

Hannah is an Esthetic Jew living in the Jewish ghetto of Venice in 1575.  She is extremely poor and supports herself by serving as a midwife to the women of the ghetto.  Her husband Isaac has been captured as he set off to make his fortune and is now a prisoner (slave) on the island of Malta.  They parted with cross words so raising the money to earn his pardon is extremely important to Hannah.

Because of her profession, Hannah is used to late-night visitors.  But on this one night she was surprised to find a count and his brother along with the Rabbi at her door.  The count’s wife was in labor and had been for some time.  He wanted Hannah’s help.  The Rabbi forbid Hannah to go.  The rules for the Jews were very strict and she was forbidden to help a gentile.  After much haggling, Hannah finally said she would come with the count for the sum of 200 ducats–the amount she needed for the ransom.  The count agreed, the rabbi was furious, and Hannah was stunned.

She went with the count and took along her birthing spoons–a device she had created to assist in the somewhat unorthodox methods she used as a midwife.  When she reached the count’s home, she found the midwife there and the count’s wife in extreme distress.  She must negotiate carefully with the other midwife and try to save the baby (and if possible, the wife).  This is important to the count who must have an heir to save the fortune from his brothers. 

Hannah finally delivers a healthy son and from this point her life becomes very complicated as both of the count’s brothers try to destroy her, the baby, and all that is dear to both of them.  She is reunited with her sister Jessica who has abandoned her Jewish faith and she and Jessica find a way to help the baby and Hannah.

In the meantime, we also are provided with the life that Isaac is forced to lead as he is sold to Joseph who is cruel beyond measure.  Isaac is saved by a Catholic nun who will help Isaac only if he converts to Christianity.  He refuses and is given back to Joseph.  Isaac is clever and manages to keep himself alive, but barely, on the island.  The money for his ransom comes through but only if he will divorce Hannah which he refuses to do.

To tell more would spoil the story for the reader who will be taken into the ghetto of Venice and discover the rules that dominated, who will become acquainted with the plague, who will learn of intrigue and brutality.

It is an excellent book, well written, and one that captivates.  I am eager to read more of Roberta Rich’s work.  She spins a web and draws a reader into its depths.

Now adding Roberta Rich books to the idea list for my mom for her birthday. Because from now on, I'm not going to pass on giving her a book just because she's already got a pile of books on her nightstand! Thanks, Mom, for another great review!

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