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The Midwife of Venice [Deckle Edge] [Paperback]

Roberta Rich
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 8 2011

At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that 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. 

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.

Hannah Levi is known throughout sixteenth-century Venice for her skill in midwifery. When a Christian count appears at Hannah's door in the Jewish ghetto imploring her to attend his labouring wife, who is nearing death, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. Not only is it illegal for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians, it's also punishable by torture and death. Moreover, as her Rabbi angrily points out, if the mother or child should die, the entire ghetto population will be in peril.

But Hannah’s compassion for another woman’s misery overrides her concern for self-preservation. The Rabbi once forced her to withhold care from her shunned sister, Jessica, with terrible consequences. Hannah cannot turn away from a labouring woman again. Moreover, she cannot turn down the enormous fee offered by the Conte. Despite the Rabbi’s protests, she knows that this money can release her husband, Isaac, a merchant who was recently taken captive on Malta as a slave. There is nothing Hannah wants more than to see the handsome face of the loving man who married her despite her lack of dowry, and who continues to love her despite her barrenness. She must save Isaac.

Meanwhile, far away in Malta, Isaac is worried about Hannah’s safety, having heard tales of the terrifying plague ravaging Venice. But his own life is in terrible danger. He is auctioned as a slave to the head of the local convent, Sister Assunta, who is bent on converting him to Christianity. When he won’t give up his faith, he’s traded to the brutish lout Joseph, who is renowned for working his slaves to death. Isaac soon learns that Joseph is heartsick over a local beauty who won’t give him the time of day. Isaac uses his gifts of literacy and a poetic imagination—not to mention long-pent-up desire—to earn his day-to-day survival by penning love letters on behalf of his captor and a paying illiterate public.

Back in Venice, Hannah packs her “"birthing spoons”—secret rudimentary forceps she invented to help with difficult births—and sets off with the Conte and his treacherous brother. Can she save the mother? Can she save the baby, on whose tiny shoulders the Conte’s legacy rests? And can she also save herself, and Isaac, and their own hopes for a future, without endangering the lives of everyone in the ghetto?

The Midwife of Venice is a gripping historical page-turner, enthralling readers with its suspenseful action and vivid depiction of life in sixteenth-century Venice. Roberta Rich has created a wonderful heroine in Hannah Levi, a lioness who will fight for the survival of the man she loves, and the women and babies she is duty-bound to protect, carrying with her the best of humanity’s compassion and courage.

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“A lively tale involving love, blackmail, family, murder, plague, intercultural compassion, dramatic last-minute rescues and some very creative disguises.... Rich capably depicts the strength of women and the precariousness of their lives, regardless of status or religion.”
The Globe and Mail

“A lavishly detailed historical novel.”
Elle Magazine

“Enticing.... An adventure filled with love, intrigue, murder and unbreakable loyalty in a renaissance city where exotic perfumes and foul odours almost seem to waft off the page.”
—Toronto Star

“A compelling and engaging novel, a well-researched high-stakes drama written with elegance and compassion: fascinating!”
— Sandra Gulland, author of The Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun
“A meticulously researched page-turner that evokes renaissance Venice with remarkable clarity, radiance, and vigour.” — William Deverell, author of Mind Games
“Not only did Roberta Rich transport me to  sixteenth-century Venice, with its seductive tapestry of smells, sights, textures and beliefs, she involved me in a poignant story of seasoned love. I don’t know which I admired more — the wonderfully realized setting or the suspenseful story of Hannah and Isaac.”
— Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean

“A suspenseful tale.... The book is obviously well researched, and its descriptions of Venice and Malta are both fascinating and realistic.”
Vancouver Sun

“Roberta Rich plunges into the stench, intrigue and skulduggery of 16th-century plague-ridden Venice.... Rich revels in the details of light, smell, sound, and larger-than-life characters.”
— More Magazine

“Rich successfully captures the seedy side of 16th-century Venice—the Jewish ghetto, the plague, the confluence of religious and legal authority.”
Publishers Weekly

“Entertainingly suspenseful.... [A] moving melodrama of steadfast love against all odds. In a series of cliff-hanging chapters, Hannah transforms from a “timid little ghetto mouse” into a resourceful young woman as she seeks to save her husband and an innocent child.... Rich’s fascinating historical details and her warm empathy for her protagonists will capture historical fiction fans and readers who enjoyed Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.”
—Library Journal

Rich skillfully incorporates a wealth of historical detail into her riveting tale of a heroine who won't give up on her marriage.”
—Chicago Tribune

About the Author

Born in Buffalo, New York, Roberta Rich was until recently a lawyer practicing family law. She has also been a student, waitress, nurses’ aide, hospital admitting clerk, and factory assembly line worker. She currently divides her time between Vancouver, B.C. and Colima, Mexico. She is married and has one daughter, three step-children, a German Shepherd, tropical fish and many oversexed parakeets. The Midwife of Venice marks her debut as a novelist.
“Much of the history of women is written in water,” says Rich of the impetus to create a literary heroine based on the history of the Jews in Venice, after touring the Venice ghetto on holiday. “Their accomplishments disappear as smoothly as a stone thrown in a pond. The creations of women are transitory — meals cooked, clothes mended, clothes washed, clothes sold (for one of the few professions Jews were permitted at the time was trade in second hand clothing), children born, children birthed, and children raised. After that trip, I started to read all I could find on the subject of daily life in the ghetto. There is precious little. And precious little about the daily lives of women in particular and how they gave birth. This book is a way to imagine a way into all that invisible history.”

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
52 of 52 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars great historical debut Feb. 25 2011
By Luanne Ollivier #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
The Midwife of Venice is Roberta Rich's debut novel. And it's one I wouldn't have discovered on my own - so, thanks Jessica for the great recommendation!

Hannah Levi is a midwife in the Jewish ghetto of Venice in 1575. When a Christian nobleman asks her to attend his wife, she initially refuses. After all, it is forbidden by law for a Jew to give care to a Christian. But he is desperate - his wife has been labouring for 2 days and is near death. Against the wishes of her rabbi, Hannah agrees - the nobleman has agreed to pay an exorbitant fee. That fee will allow Hannah to buy back her husband Isaac, who has been captured and forced into slavery in Malta.

The Midwife of Venice is full of rich historical detail - the social mores and customs of the time, religious differences and a fascinating look at midwifery. The chapters alternate between Hannah in Venice and Isaac in Malta and their continuing struggle to be together. Isaac's chapters are just as full of historical detail, but the characters in these chapters seemed a little overdrawn, such as the nun who buys Isaac. It is Hannah and her tale I enjoyed the most. Her character came to life on the page.

Rich has successfully combined history, suspense and romance into a fascinating page turner. My only complaint - it ended too soon! But it looks like a sequel is in the works - I'll be picking it up for sure.

**Congratulations to Roberta Rich - The Midwife of Venice is #8 on the Globe and Mail hardcover bestseller list!**
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Midwife of Venice Feb. 16 2011
By mreads
Wow - I highly reccomend this book! I read it in a day (couldn't put it down) and loved the strong female characters and descriptions of Jewish life in 16th century Venice. What a terrific novel!
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Midwife of Venice - Must Read! Feb. 15 2011
By Bookie
The Midwife of Venice is fantastic. The story is so compelling I could barely put it down. Roberta Rich creates a 16th century Venice that is accessible and easily understood. The story on its own is captivating, but the backdrop of the Jewish ghetto in Venice adds to our richness and understanding of that place in time. Brilliant!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, a great book to read. April 5 2011
By Karoline TOP 500 REVIEWER
I absolutely loved reading this book. It was so beautifully written, the plot was interesting, and the characters were all memorable. Things just seemed to happen one even after another that the book ended up being a page turner and I would definitely recommend this book for those that are going through a 'reading rut' at the moment. This is the perfect book to get back on track on your 'reading roll'.

The descriptions of the city of Venice were wonderful. There were really great contrasts between the setting where Hannah lives (the Jewish area) and the Christian area. It's not to say that Hannah lives in deep poverty she seems to be living comfortable with just the basic needs. However when compared to the places she goes to outside of the Ghetto area, it's a vast difference and shows how different these two groups of people live. The persecution and hatred that Hannah and her people have to go through on a daily basis is hard to read, and does make you upset while reading them. However, it is historically accurate, and it's interesting to note the mentioning of the blood libel, and how crimes committed against Jews were hugely ignored (however if it was vice versa, there would have been an uproar). So throughout the novel, everywhere she turns, Hannah is faced with her 'Jewishness'. It's what sets her apart from the rest and it's painfully obvious; however she deals with it accordingly and puts it all aside, especially while she does her duties as a midwife.

I really did enjoy reading about Hannah a lot. She's such a strong woman and very determined. She even puts aside her beliefs to doing what she feels is the right thing.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting March 9 2011
Roberta Rich's story is compelling, the imagery is vivid and the characters are interesting and complex. From the delicious to the disgusting, the author paints a portrait of the era that is so multidimensional that I was completely transported. I was sad when it ended! I hope to see more from this exciting new writer.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Midwife of Venice June 24 2011
It has a decent hook and starts off on a fast pace, which is the type of read I prefer. I found it reached its crescendo far too early, at the end of the fifth chapter. From there it settled into a predictable pace with a foreseeable outcome, much like the travails Hannah Levi attended to.

I would have preferred to see the main characters; Hannah and Isaac, give in a little more to temptation, thus creating more of an intimate crisis for the protagonists to overcome. Both conquered physical hardships, which, for modern day persons, would be difficult to comprehend. It is the intimate human struggles, many may experience at one point in life, which is somewhat lacking - things were tied up neatly like a shiny present. You could see them ride off into the preverbal sunset on the last page, as if their lives were to be a cake-walk from here on out, without the obstacles which make life interesting.

The novel is well written, with just the right amount of detail to clearly envision what the squalid living conditions of a sixteenth century Venetian Jewish Ghetto would be like.

Roberta Rich's portrayal of class and religious division is compelling. Her writing immediately opens up the fellowship between the two main characters and the reader.

I give this novel 3.5/5
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Trite, full of historical inaccuracies from what I have ...
Trite, full of historical inaccuracies from what I have read...our book club panned it. We felt it had potential but did not live up to the beginning.
Published 18 days ago by Mary-Jo Ohl
5.0 out of 5 stars A good book club selection
As a city built on water, Venice has long been synonymous with extremes of beauty and corruption, insularity and internationalism, and the uses and abuses of power. Read more
Published 2 months ago by beryl young
4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and Quick Read
My review of this book is really more of a story. I don’t come from a family of readers. Sure they pick up the odd book to flip through before bed or when they’re on vacation but... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Christa Seeley
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Read
I enjoyed this book immensely. I would recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction. It takes you on a journey through oppression, sacrifice, and love.k
Published 9 months ago by Suzyvg
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read
Enjoyed this book very much. It keeps you turning the pages as you do not want to put it down!
Published 9 months ago by Jennifer Stanley
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting and compelling story
A good read about love in the 14 th century. You fall in love with the characters as they struggle through uncertain times and are faced with moral and religious dilemmas. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Louise
5.0 out of 5 stars Midwife of Venice
It is an easy book to read, from her life and husbands life, whereas he was captured and in a different part of the cournty. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Beverly A. Lapointe
2.0 out of 5 stars The Midwife of Venice
It was an easy read, but rather disappointing. The characters were not fully developed, the plot was predictable, and the ending was very abrupt.
Published 14 months ago by DD
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing Story and an Impressive Debut Novel
Above all the Midwife of Venice is a highly enjoyable read. Some historical novels are cleverly woven around actual events with the author putting the skin on the bones and... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Brett H
5.0 out of 5 stars A gift for a fan
My mother is a fan of this author and as such this made an excellent gift. She very much appreciated the fact that it could be shipped directly to her.
Published 16 months ago by George Toumishey
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