"The Midwife of Venice" by Roberta Rich, Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster), February 2012, 352 pp.
It's obvious Roberta Rich did her research when writing "The Midwife of Venice," her debut novel. Set in the Jewish ghetto of Venice as well as on the island of Malta in the late 1500s, the story is rich in details and history as it follows Jewish midwife Hannah and her beloved husband Isaac Levi, a merchant.
The book was originally published on Valentine's Day, and while it is certainly a love story on one level I would say it's more of a testament to the strength of and rights of women, the gifts of midwives, the sanctity of the Jewish religion, and early gynecological experimentation.Yes, there's a lot going on here.
After delivering many babies, Hannah has invented a contraption she calls "birthing spoons" to assist in difficult deliveries. It seems a lot of babies were gruesomely dismembered in attempts to save the mothers when they were breach or difficult births back in the times of this novel. But Hannah's contraption - similar to forceps, I would guess, but usually seen as witchcraft by an outsider - has helped her to improve her birthing success rate greatly.
Hannah's husband Isaac, whom she deeply loves, has encountered misfortune on a trip to sell some wares. He ends up being sold into slavery on the bleak island of Malta but his quick-thinking and ability to read and write keep him from certain death as a galley slave. He tries everything he can think of to find passage on a ship back to his beloved Hannah.
Meanwhile, Hannah is summoned in the middle of the night to assist in the birth of a nobleman's child. This nobleman is a Christian, and at the time, Christians and Jews were great foes. Hannah's decision to defy her own Rabbi to attend to the birth of a Christian child is considered a great offense. But she does so only because the job will pay enough for her to rescue Isaac.
Rich does a good job of creating suspense, as each chapter of the novel jumps from Hannah to Isaac and each ends with a veritable cliffhanger. I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say there's a lot of suspense to this story. The characters, from Hannah and Isaac to Hannah's sister, Assunta - the nun who helps Issac, and the Count who seeks Hannah's help in the very challenging birth of his child are well developed. But for me, something in the telling was unorganic. I had problems with the flow of the story. It wasn't coming together for me as best or as compellingly as it should.
I was interested enough to finish the novel, and I don't regret reading it. I just didn't love it.
Special thanks to Gallery Books for providing a review copy, which has been claimed by my sister-in-law Sherri who is quite a voracious reader!
Book description from the publisher:
Hannah Levi is renowned throughout Venice for her gift at coaxing reluctant babies from their mothers — a gift aided by the secret “birthing spoons” she designed. But when a count implores her to attend to his wife, who has been laboring for days to give birth to their firstborn son, Hannah is torn. A Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians, but the payment he offers is enough to ransom her beloved husband, Isaac, who has been captured at sea. Can Hannah refuse her duty to a suffering woman? Hannah’s choice entangles her in a treacherous family rivalry that endangers the baby and threatens her voyage to Malta, where Isaac, believing her dead in the plague, is preparing to buy his passage to a new life. Not since The Red Tent or People of the Book has a novel transported readers so intimately into the complex lives of women centuries ago or so richly into a story of intrigue that transcends the boundaries of history.
About the author:
Roberta Rich divides her time between Vancouver, British Columbia and Colima, Mexico