February 25, 2012

The Midwife of Venice

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich
2012 Galley Press
Finished 2/16/12
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Venice Challenge #2

Publisher’s Blurb:

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. Hannah Levi is renowned for her gift at coaxing reluctant babies from their mothers using her secret “birthing spoons.” When a count implores her to attend his dying wife and save their unborn son, she is torn. A Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians, but his payment is enough to ransom her husband, Isaac, who has been captured at sea. Can she refuse her duty to a woman who is suffering? Hannah’s choice entangles her in a treacherous family rivalry that endangers the child and threatens her voyage to Malta, where Isaac, believing her dead in the plague, is preparing to buy his passage to a new life. Told with exceptional skill, The Midwife of Venice brings to life a time and a place cloaked in fascination and mystery and introduces a captivating new talent in historical fiction.

I came upon the ARC of this book one day at work. It was right around the time I was putting together a stack of books for the Venice in February Reading Challenge, so I quickly snatched it up, eager to try another new author.

Photo Credits

Venice 1575:

During the full moon, unseen currents ran in the canals, washing over the crumbling walls and wetting the slimy steps of the ghetto. At high tide, acqu alta*, the entire campo disappeared under a layer of mud. Tonight was such a night. Hannah held up her skirts as she, the Conte, and the Rabbi made their way across the campo toward the gates, the Conte grasping her elbow to prevent her from slipping in the silt. Overhead in her building, shutters opened. A tiny flicker of a candle showed through the window and then the shutters banged closed. Hannah shivered as a rat leapt into the canal, leaving greasy ripples in the water.


Hannah stood on the dock for a moment, collecting her thoughts. Venice was awakening. Morning sun glinted on the water, infusing it with the luminescent colours of Murano glass. The canal was filled with boats jostling for right-of-way. Barges spilling over with apples and pomegranates, round and succulent, lumbered toward the Rialto market. A fishmonger on the opposite side of the canal held up snapper and tilapia, their scales pearly white in the first light of dawn. The shops along the strazi teemed with early morning shoppers. Water sellers trudged back from the wellhead in the piazzetta, their buckets sloshing.

I enjoyed the book well enough, but was more drawn to Hannah’s story than Isaac’s. I would have liked to have seen more accounts of Hannah’s midwifery prior to her visit from the count, as well as more details of her relationship with her husband. The plot lacks depth and, with the exception of Hannah, the majority of characters are one-dimensional and forgettable. In spite of these quibbles, I found the narrative entertaining and suspenseful and might be convinced to give the sequel a try, depending on the early reviews.

*Acqua Alta: (Italian: 'high waters') is the term used in Veneto for the exceptional tide peaks that occur periodically in the northern Adriatic Sea. The peaks reach their maximum in the Venetian Lagoon, where they cause partial flooding of Venice and Chioggia; flooding also occurs elsewhere around the northern Adriatic, for instance at Grado and Trieste, but much less often and to a lesser degree. The phenomenon occurs mainly between autumn and spring, when the astronomical tides are reinforced by the prevailing seasonal winds which hamper the usual reflux. The main winds involved are the scirocco, which blows northbound along the Adriatic Sea, and the bora, which has a specific local effect due to the shape and location of the Venetian lagoon. (Source: Wikipedia)


  1. I don't read a lot of historical fiction so when I do, I want it to be excellent. I'll probably skip this one.

  2. Oddly, I still want to read it. Entertaining and suspenseful without character development? I can cope. Maybe.

  3. It's too late for this year, but I'd consider adding this to my Venice in February list next time around. Wonder if it will become an annual event?

  4. Kathy - I was thinking about what makes a good work of historical fiction and I think that I prefer a book that goes into great detail of the setting and time period, as well as well-drawn characters. Pope Joan and The Tea Rose are two that come to mind. This one just skimmed the surface on so many levels.

    Nancy - I don't think that's odd. You and I don't always agree on books, so maybe this would be a hit with you. ;) It was definitely suspenseful. Maybe that's why I kept at it.

    JoAnn- I hope it becomes an annual event. I enjoyed visiting Venice, albeit vicariously.

  5. Too bad that it didn't have more depth....the whole midwife aspect fascinates me!!

  6. Staci - I wonder if I'm being too critical, especially having just finished The Homecoming of Samuel Lake (which will most certainly be in my Top Ten for 2012!). I just gave up on an audio book after more than 8 chapters. I hope I'm not heading toward a slump!!


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