I’d been eyeing Midwife of Venice for a while, and eventually picked it up only because I’d heard about it on Twitter and I wanted something new to read. I’m glad I did – it’s an interesting story, a good blend of romance and cultural conflict.
Hannah, a Jewish midwife, is hired by a Christian nobleman to help his wife who is going through a very difficult childbirth. Despite it being illegal for a Jew to help a Christian woman give birth, Hannah takes the job in order to make enough money to ransom her husband Isaac from slave traders. The novel alternates between Hannah’s story and Isaac’s life as a slave in Malta. Both are motivated by their love for each other, and Roberta Rich communicates the strength of this love without being mushy.
Rich creates some interesting secondary characters. Hannah’s sister, in particular, is very well fleshed out. She’d converted to Christianity, and had been disowned by her family and the Jewish community in Venice, so that when she was having a difficult childbirth and was in danger of losing the baby, Hannah was forbidden to help her. Other minor characters – the nobleman’s greedy brother, the slave trader, the nun – aren’t given the same level of complexity in their own stories, but still add colour and conflict to Hannah and Isaac’s love story.
Minor irritants – I found the ending too neat. On one hand, I cared for Hannah and Isaac, and I found the ending satisfying for that reason. On the other hand, the timing and events all seemed too convenient, so that the ending felt staged.
Also, despite both Hannah’s and Isaac’s stories being compelling, I thought Hannah’s story was developed so much more richly than Isaac’s. We are told, for example, that Isaac’s an amazing writer, and it is by playing Cyrano de Bergerac to the slave trader that he can earn his freedom. But we aren’t shown his writing. Isaac promises that his letter will be so well-written that the recipient would fall in love with even the utterly vile slave trader. Isaac then says at one point that all he needs to complete his letter is the recipient’s eye colour, and is horrified that the slave trader couldn’t remember. With such characterization of romance and poetry in Isaac’s character, I wanted to see for myself just how beautiful this letter is. Another minor point in Isaac’s story is that a woman in Malta falls in love with Isaac, and somehow wants to free him from slavery while still keeping him from Hannah. I wanted to find out more about this woman, and how she reacts to Isaac’s devotion to Hannah. Subtlety is one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much, but, in Isaac’s story at least, I wish there had been less of it.
Overall, definitely a good read. At its heart, it’s a beautiful love story. It’s refreshing to see a romance where the couple is so secure in their love for each other, with no contrived conflict to make them doubt each other, and where much bigger issues like culture and economics are what keep them apart.