Hannah Levi is renowned as the best midwife Venice has to offer. She delivers babies that no other midwife can manage, aided by her set of birthing spoons that enable her to pull reluctant babies from their mother’s wombs, saving both of them. But Hannah is Jewish, which means that she can’t practice on Christian mothers and babies, until a nobleman enters her house and begs for her help to save his wife. Hannah’s initial reluctance vanishes when the count offers her enough money to ransom her husband, who has been captured at sea and enslaved for months. Her choice to try and save mother and baby creates an intense rivalry amongst the count’s family that endangers everything she strove to save and may leave her husband trapped on Malta forever.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from The Midwife of Venice; even though I had it for review, it spent a bit too long on the shelf before I finally persuaded myself to pick it up and give it a try. Compared to The Red Tent and People of the Book – both books I loved – it did sound like something I would like, but I simply don’t crave historical fiction these days. With this book, I was initially reluctant and it took me a few pages to get into it, but before long I became invested in Hannah and Isaac and eager to find out what happened to each of them next.
The story is told through alternating viewpoints, with Hannah in Venice and Isaac stranded in Malta. Each of them deal with completely different difficulties, but one of the constants of the book is their longing to be back together, though they’ve been separated for months and fear the other dead. It’s a story about an established love, which doesn’t occur quite as often as new romance in a book like this one.
In addition, Hannah’s half of the story revolves around the uniquely female sphere of childhood and, in that time, child-rearing. Many of the people she deals with are women, and in fact the only kind character who is male on her side of the story is the count himself. His wife, the previous midwife, and Hannah’s sister all have a role to play in her quest to get her husband back, making the female relationships in this novel intriguing even as we note how precarious their positions are. Hannah, as a Jewish midwife, is intensely vulnerable when delivering a Christian child, as she could be accused of killing the baby and its mother in a heartbeat. Her sister, a converted Christian prostitute, also faces the very severe difficulties of her position, especially when we discover exactly how she ended up that way.
I found Isaac’s side of the story somewhat less compelling, as he battles against people trying to enslave him and stays faithful to his religion despite the temptation of nourishment and safety. I’m not entirely sure why; I know that slave stories are important, but Isaac’s didn’t have much to add, and people in general just seemed too keen to help him. I know this sounds like me saying “he isn’t suffering enough!” but it just felt somewhat unrealistic that he’d have multiple helpers devoted to rescuing him when undoubtedly most captured slaves had a very difficult time of it.
Reservations aside, The Midwife of Venice is a book that I enjoyed very much, and would be a perfect fit for someone looking for historical fiction outside the standard templates of Great Britain, monarchy, or Rome.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.