Monday, July 25, 2011

From Venice to Malta: A Review of Roberta Rich's "The Midwife of Venice"

At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge which leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin. Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters. Through the mist rising from the canal the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo. Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.
The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich, page 1.

 Hannah Levi, a midwife in the Venetian ghetto has gained renown for her skill in coaxing reluctant babies out of their mother’s bellies using her “birthing spoons”, a rudimentary form of forceps. One night a Christian nobleman, Conte Paolo di Padovani appears at Hannah’s door in the Jewish ghetto with an impossible request.He implores Hannah to help his dying wife and save their unborn child. But a Papal edict has made it a crime, punishable by death, for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians. The Conte offers her a huge sum of money, enough to enable her to sail to Malta to ransom her beloved husband, Isaac who has been captured at sea and is a slave of the Knights of St. John.

Against the Rabbi’s advice, Hannah goes with the Conte and delivers the infant, Matteo, a child who captures her heart.  As she prepares to depart for Malta to rescue Isaac, she discovers that the baby’s uncles are plotting to murder the baby in order to seize the family fortune.  In the absence of the Conte and his wife who are in Ferrara on urgent family matters, there is no one but Hannah to save Matteo. She enlists her sister Jessica who is a courtesan and living as a Christian outside the ghetto. An outbreak of the plague traps them in Venice and makes them easy prey for the baby’s murderous uncles.

Woven through Hannah’s travails are Isaac’s hardships as a slave in Malta. Blessed with wit and charm, he earns scraps of food as a scribe and pins his hopes for freedom on bartering his precious silkworm eggs. To reach Isaac, who believes she has died in the plague, Hannah must outsmart the di Padovani family and sail to Malta before Isaac manages to buy his passage to a new life in Constantinople.

                I got this book for my birthday, from awesome roommate M. She found it on my Amazon Wishlist, which is so bad since now I just post things on it to excess and expect that people will keep looking at it and getting me stuff … Anyways.
                I read the synopsis of it and was instantly hooked – it was a historical love story with an uncertain ending. So when I unwrapped it I was all excited and could not wait to read it. I started it before an exam (don’t judge – it’s my relaxation technique), And I couldn’t put it down until it was done! It was riveting and so sad, and so frustrating – the bulk of the book takes place over only a couple of days – but they are tension-filled frustrating days that force you to read onwards so you know how it ends. 

                The main character is Hannah – a midwife who lives in the Jewish ghetto in Venice – a cramped, smelly place where people are forced to live due to an increasingly erratic and discriminatory Church presence in the city. The edicts passed in the city also prevent Jewish people from doing certain jobs, especially where it pertains to Christians – for example, no Jewish doctor is to treat a Christian person (though the reverse is also true: no Christian doctor is allowed to treat a Jewish patient). The city is ripe for conversion – the aim being to stop the spread of Judaism through forced conversion – a practice that is held very negatively in the book, which I will come back to later. 

                In this environment, Hannah waits for news of her husband, Isaac, who went to sea against her express wishes, and then got himself captured. Hannah’s struggle with this and her bargaining and negotiation for the means to free him make plain three things: first, that theirs is a love that is all-consuming – though the Rabbi (A most vile man, in my opinion) tells her she can divorce herself from Isaac and that there is no point in waiting for him, Hannah  (and later Isaac) press on towards each other, knowing that if not in this life – then they would be together in the next; second, it highlights the precarious and dismal situation for women alone – sure, she’s a midwife – saves babies and mothers all the time – but she is a woman, and a Jewish one at that – there is not much in the way of opportunities or chances for her to release herself from the ghetto; finally, her struggle and willingness to fight for her husband adds a layer to her character that is otherwise invisible throughout the book: the Rebel. 

                When I say that Hannah is a “rebel” when she fights for her husband, I suppose I would get a lot of eyebrows being raised and questions of just how a wife fighting for her husband is in anyway rebellious, but bear with – there is a line of thinking here I hope is logical. You see, Hannah is Jewish – what we today would consider an Orthodox Jew. She is strict about her beliefs and believes them fully, obeying the rules of the religion – even when it means shutting out her newly converted sister. Now granted, I am an atheist and a huge feminist, so this is definitely tainted with my own bias – but I would never give up my sisters because a man who claimed to be my religious superior told me to. It just wouldn’t happen.
              Not so with Hannah – the only thing that makes her ever question the legitimacy of the Rabbi’s orders is when he prohibits her from trying to save her husband. And she rebels – she goes with the Christian man – the only one depicted in any kind of good light – and she earns the money she needs to free her husband. With dire consequences – the scheming Rabbi, who can see he is losing influence with Hannah (and that she may yet become a danger to the Jewish population) sends a messenger to Isaac trying to get him to divorce Hannah in order to retain money enough to free himself (yeah, talk about insult to injury). The road to Hell, and all that. 

                The men around Hannah in Venice brought me back to my Undergraduate days when I was taking a class with the amazing Barbara Todd on Women’s European History. It was a hard course I struggled with – the injustices of the treatment of women through the centuries is a tough pill to swallow – especially when the curse runs all the way into modern times, and you realize with a sinking feeling that inequality and control of women is still very much alive and encouraged. Hannah is, at the beginning of the book, under the control of many men – her husband is gone, but her Rabbi has direct authority over her, and then the Christian rulers of Venice have indirect control over her in a frightening way. Though a lot of the book is her succumbing to these pressures, her bouts of rebellion – that begin with trying to save Isaac and move to saving another man, and then herself – make her grow – they make her question her own faith and find it stronger when she moves through those obstacles to get to the point where she can recognize the control for what it is, and be in a position to thwart it.

                So as a feminist – though I struggled with her and was growingly frustrated with her, I liked Hannah. I liked her for her spirit and her eventual understanding, and the way that by the end, she had grown to accept others around her, instead of fearing them. 

                Not so much for Isaac. He has a hate-on for converts. Now, again, I will show my bias. My family converted – Jewish to Catholic, back in the day. So far back that it doesn’t really matter anymore and doesn’t affect any of us except when other people find out about it. Like I said, I am an atheist, so the religion of my forbearers is not so much an issue for me. But when Isaac ranted on and on about converts betraying this and that, and Hannah’s original sentiments that followed the same lines – I was angry. So angry. I mean, who is anyone to judge? The fact that Isaac, by the very end, is finally ready to admit that, hey – maybe the Converts are not as evil as he thinks, I had nearly given up on him. It takes Hannah and her endurance and her ability to touch other women around her to bring out a semblance of understanding in her husband. 

                Which is another reason I like the book. It is all Hannah – Hannah save the day, Hannah flees and survives, and Hannah forces understanding onto her husband – and he loves her enough and trusts her enough that he takes it and (we’re left t hope) changes his own attitudes. 

                Again, am feminist. Love those stories that put a lens of hierarchical structures where females are the voice. I recommend this book – I think it was a great story, and I think that though frustrating, the feel good (or at least, feel better) ending is worth it. 

                There can be made the argument that the title - The Midwife of Venice - is in direct homage to the Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice, which deals with similar issues of class and religion, and a lot of the names and refrences are recycled therein. However, I think the merits of the book lie in the female viewpoint, rather then the allegory - and much better ending - to The Merchant of Venice (Besides, I have always hated that play - Shylock should have gotten his pound of flesh - though that is disgusting - mostly because Antonio and the others were just so unlikeable. Portia and Jesisca were the only interesting characters with any development - and they totally settled.)

This book is for you if you liked:
·         The JoyLuck Club by Amy Tan
·         The Helpby Kathryn Stockett
·         The BirthHouse by Ami McKay

Next to Review: Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Mabury



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