Hannah Levi is known throughout sixteenth-century Venice for her skill in midwifery. When a Christian count appears at Hannah’s door in the Jewish ghetto imploring her to attend his labouring wife, who is nearing death, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. Not only is it illegal for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians, it’s also punishable by torture and death. Moreover, as her Rabbi angrily points out, if the mother or child should die, the entire ghetto population will be in peril.
But Hannah’s compassion for another woman’s misery overrides her concern for self-preservation. The Rabbi once forced her to withhold care from her shunned sister, Jessica, with terrible consequences. Hannah cannot turn away from a labouring woman again. Moreover, she cannot turn down the enormous fee offered by the Conte. Despite the Rabbi’s protests, she knows that this money can release her husband, Isaac, a merchant who was recently taken captive on Malta as a slave. There is nothing Hannah wants more than to see the handsome face of the loving man who married her despite her lack of dowry, and who continues to love her despite her barrenness. She must save Isaac.
Meanwhile, far away in Malta, Isaac is worried about Hannah’s safety, having heard tales of the terrifying plague ravaging Venice. But his own life is in terrible danger. He is auctioned as a slave to the head of the local convent, Sister Assunta, who is bent on converting him to Christianity. When he won’t give up his faith, he’s traded to the brutish lout Joseph, who is renowned for working his slaves to death. Isaac soon learns that Joseph is heartsick over a local beauty who won’t give him the time of day. Isaac uses his gifts of literacy and a poetic imagination—not to mention long-pent-up desire—to earn his day-to-day survival by penning love letters on behalf of his captor and a paying illiterate public.
Back in Venice, Hannah packs her “”birthing spoons”—secret rudimentary forceps she invented to help with difficult births—and sets off with the Conte and his treacherous brother. Can she save the mother? Can she save the baby, on whose tiny shoulders the Conte’s legacy rests? And can she also save herself, and Isaac, and their own hopes for a future, without endangering the lives of everyone in the ghetto?
I found the plotlines revolving around Hannah’s midwife practice very compelling. It was fascinating to learn more about the role of midwives at that time (1575). Of course, we know that childbirth was a hazardous undertaking for women prior to the advent of modern medicine, but seeing it up close through Hannah’s experiences really drives home how risky it was and how closely death would hover for both mother and child. On top of the risks of childbirth, in The Midwife of Venice we get a stark portrayal of the status of Jews in Venice. The anti-Semitism of the time is commonplace, ordinary, and frightening. The threat of the inquisitors arresting Jews in violation of the law is an ever-present danger. When Hannah agrees to deliver a Christian nobleman’s baby, she’s putting the entire ghetto at risk, because if a Jewish woman can be blamed for causing the mother or baby to die, it’s likely that the people of Venice will invade the ghetto and slaughter the Jews.
Woven throughout Hannah’s story are chapters focusing on her husband Isaac, held prisoner on Malta with a ridiculous and unattainable sum set as his ransom. His efforts to earn his own freedom come to nothing, and the best he can do is try to stay alive until he can either escape or get rescued.
While the story as a whole held my interest, there are some oddities in the narrative that kept it from being more than just an okay read (listen) for me. It was often hard to tell how much time had passed from one chapter to another, so that a messenger might bring Isaac word of something that had happened in Venice — word that would presumably take weeks or longer to travel that distance — while only days had passed in Hannah’s part of the story. I wish the sections dealing with Hannah and her estranged sister Jessica had been better developed; their relationship is very layered and complex, yet it seemed to be dealt with much too quickly. Some of the action sequences happened much too quickly as well, leading me to believe that the author isn’t quite skilled enough in this type of writing: She’s very good at creating mood and characters, but putting together scenes of suspense or physical danger doesn’t seem to be a strength.
On the whole, there are some believability issues as well. Characters change course and act in ways that seem illogical and not in keeping with what we know about them. There are story beats that seem to come from nowhere, keeping the drama high, but almost without connection to the scenes that came before. A few moments of high drama keep the tension ratcheted up, but at the same time, at least one in particular seems to have no impact on the plot whatsoever, so why even include it?
Overall, The Midwife of Venice presents a very interesting story and setting, but the execution isn’t as good as I would have hoped. As for the audiobook, I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. She does a good job with the Italian phrases and names, but the depiction of the rougher folks of Malta was off — there were times when I thought the people in the crowd scenes sounded like New Yorkers! Also, the audiobook experience makes certain repetitions more glaring — why, for example, is it necessary to begin every chapter by identifying not only the location of the chapter (helpful to know whether we’re in Venice or Malta), but the year? It’s 1575 in every single chapter, so why repeat it in EVERY SINGLE CHAPTER?
The Midwife of Venice was my book group’s pick for March, and I’ve enjoyed hearing others’ thoughts on the book. I understand this is the first in a trilogy. Because of my issues with The Midwife of Venice, I’m not planning to read the follow-up books — but I’m interested enough in the outcome for the characters to be glad that one of my book group friends is reading the whole trilogy and has promised to let us know how it all turns out!
Title: The Midwife of Venice
Author: Roberta Rich
Narrated by: Antoinette LaVecchia
Publisher: Anchor Canada
Publication date: January 1, 2011
Length (print): 336 pages
Length (audio): 9 hours, 7 minutes
Genre: Historical fiction