The Midwife Of Venice
By Roberta Rich
Reviewed by Gale Myers
Fasten your seatbelts. We’re going to take a bumpy ride around a Mediterranean filled with pirates, plague and plots.
Historical fiction is (according to numerous publishing sites) beginning to eat the lunch of perennial-favorite mysteries and thrillers in today’s market, and with the recent publication of The Midwife of Venice the reason becomes apparent.
Part-time Mexico resident Roberta Rich constructs an historical potboiler/thriller with all the bells and whistles, then layers on impeccable and irresistible details of 16th century Venice, draws a resolute heroine, and throws all this into a sensory brew that makes the Renaissance vibrate with an immediacy a modern reader can identify with.
Socially diffident but professionally confident, Hannah Levi is an accomplished midwife in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice in 1596. She is uncommonly successful with difficult births, using her own invention of “birthing spoons,” a precursor of forceps. Her reputation spreads outside the ghetto, and one dark night, in one of the great opening literary scenes of recent years, her rabbi visits her with two Christian noblemen who wish to use her services to save the life of a Christian countess.
Because the Catholic Church forbids Jews to attend Christians medically, her rabbi pleads with her to reject the entreaties of the aristocrats. By ignoring him, she puts the people of the ghetto in peril, but for her own urgent and personal needs, agrees to deliver the baby for a very large sum of money… money she needs to pay the ransom of her husband Isaac, captured by pirates and enslaved on the island of Malta.
She delivers a baby boy, receives the money, then finds herself in the midst of a family plot of greed and succession. Against a backdrop of Black Plague, betrayal, and multiple murders, she has to kidnap the child to keep him from being murdered.
She flees Venice and now we have a story of a Jewish woman on the lam with a kidnapped Christian infant, both struggling to survive the trying passage to Malta on a boat that wallows and pitches across the sea.
Hannah is an original survivor. She knows how to form alliances, uses her skills as a midwife, and stays levelheaded.
Isaac is surviving on Malta, but barely. He too forms alliances that save him, uses his cleverness and wit to face down those who would send him to certain death as a galley slave—and stays alive because he can write letters his illiterate Maltese slave master sends to a mysterious artist.
The story, told from alternating viewpoints of Hannah and Isaac, reveals the deep and abiding love between the two, a love that enables them in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds to plan a future.
The Midwife of Venice fulfills on many levels. Period details are exquisite and characters resonate with poignant humanity. The plot plunges forward at a breakneck speed and even a coincidence or two do not slow the pace.
And there’s more good news: a sequel is coming. Hannah and Isaac will encounter a new set of adventures in Constantinople in a book tentatively set for release in spring 2013. One copy of Midwife is in the LCS library, and it’s available for download on any e-reader. Hard copies are in bookstores in the U.S. and Canada.
(Ed. Note: Our congrats to Roberta Rich, a sometime contributor to our pages, whose historical novel has now become a best-seller in both the US and Canada—with Europe soon to follow.)