Saturday, November 12, 2011

Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick

Anna Maria was abandoned, as an infant, at the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice, a foundling home and music school, where she is being raised with the other orphans. Because of her remarkable musical talent, she is spared a life of drudgery and devotes herself to becoming an accomplished violinist. As part of the figlie di coro, "daughters of the choir," she performs for kings and nobles as well as priests.

The maestro, Antonio Vivaldi, "the Red Priest of Venice," takes a special interest in Maria and composes music for her to perform. At fourteen, yearning for a rich life and a sense of belonging outside the convent walls, she is determined to learn where she comes from. Who are her parents? Is her mother alive, and if so, why doesn't she come for her? Sister Laura, who has taken a special interest in Anna Maria and her music, encourages her to write to her mother, hinting that she might have a way to deliver the letters. Yet the secret of Anna Maria's birth remains a closed book.

This novel alternates between a epistolary story, as Anna Maria writes to her mother, and her memories and reflections as a 40-year-old woman. The two parallel voices -- the intense adolescent Anna Maria, longing for a different life, and the more circumspect lady, who knows who she is and has learned to find joy in small things -- work beautifully. And the author couldn't have chosen a more delicious setting for a historical novel.

Ah ... Venice. Someday, I'm going to be on a plane, heading there! Seventeenth-century Venice is lavishly beautiful, a place of gondolas, carnivals, and sacred architecture. It is a world of contradictions, both pious and decadent. Half the year is spent in an elaborate carnival, where masked people revel in the streets, but many live in poverty or in the crowded Jewish ghetto. The arts flourish, yet artists' patrons, the Venetian nobility, is like a collection of fruit, beautiful and vividly colorful on the outside but rotten under the skin. This is the decadent but beautiful culture that Napoleon will easily conquer at the end of the century.

Immersed in this setting, Anna Maria's story is an appealing coming of age tale about a gifted, passionate, spirited girl. It is enhanced by the mystery of Anna Maria's parentage, with some twists and revealed secrets that were not difficult to figure out, but kept me turning pages nevertheless.

 I also loved the music woven into the story -- Vivaldi is probably my favorite classical composer. This "freakish violinist and eccentric cleric" didn't enjoy real success until several centuries after his death. Barbara Quick included a discography at the end of the novel, encouraging readers to listen to the music in which she immersed herself while writing Vivaldi's Virgins. And although I don't usually pay much attention to book covers -- after all I'm not looking at the cover while reading the novel :-) -- isn't the cover art on Vivaldi's Virgins gorgeous? It is taken from several paintings from the time and place where this book is set:

Young Girl Wearing a Pearl Earring by Pietro Antonio Rotari, an 18th century Venetian painter (yes, the earring has been photoshopped out) and an 18th century painting of The Guidecca and San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. Vivaldi's Virgins is a vibrant historical novel that will appeal to readers of both adult and YA fiction.

Other Reviews: Reading Extravaganza; Mostly Fiction; Violin and Books

Rating: 4.5

5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
For Me

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