Page turners: In the Company of the Courtesan

Sarah Dunant returns to familiar territory with her second novel.

With its mixture of art, romance, and politics, "The Birth of Venus" turned Sarah Dunant into an international bestseller. So it's not surprising the British writer returned to the stomping grounds that made her famous. True, it's 16th-century Venice rather than 15th-century Florence, but for readers, it's like ordering linguine instead of fettuccine.

The book opens with a literal bang: the sacking of Rome in 1527. As Spanish and German troops torch the capital and massacre the citizens, two colorful figures escape the carnage. Fiammetta, a highly paid courtesan, and her jester/accountant Bucino, a dwarf, flee to Venice with nothing but their clothes - and stomachs full of swallowed jewels. "Like good Christians, we carried our riches on the inside," Bucino remarks sardonically. But their rise in Venice is by no means assured, since Fiammetta was basically scalped by the invaders, and the two companions don't know how they'll make a living once their jewels are gone. Enter La Draga, a blind healer, who sets to work restoring Fiammetta's beauty.

The first third of "In the Company of the Courtesan" is riveting, but no amount of atmospherics can disguise the fact that the novel spins aimlessly once Fiammetta and Bucino get settled in Venice. The painter Titian puts in an appearance, as does Renaissance architect Joseph Sanseverino, but they're basically just local color. A subplot involving a wealthy Turkish trader also fails to deliver on intrigue.

Still, Dunant doesn't stint on either history or character - Bucino and La Draga are particularly memorable - and "Company" rallies in time for a moving, melancholy conclusion. Grade: B-

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