Title: The Midwife of Venice
Author: Roberta Rich
Publisher: Gallery Books
May Contain Spoilers
Hannah Levi is renowned throughout Venice for her gift at coaxing reluctant babies from their mothers—a gift aided by the secret “birthing spoons” she designed. But when a count implores her to attend to his wife, who has been laboring for days to give birth to their firstborn son, Hannah is torn. A Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians, but the payment he offers is enough to ransom her beloved husband, Isaac, who has been captured at sea. Can Hannah refuse her duty to a suffering woman? Hannah’s choice entangles her in a treacherous family rivalry that endangers the baby and threatens her voyage to Malta, where Isaac, believing her dead in the plague, is preparing to buy his passage to a new life. Not since The Red Tent or People of the Book has a novel transported readers so intimately into the complex lives of women centuries ago or so richly into a story of intrigue that transcends the boundaries of history.,
After reading this book, I wonder how anybody survived childbirth in the 16th century. Ugh! I found this historical drama about Hannah, a Jewish midwife, fascinating, and couldn’t put it down. I didn’t find the chapters chronicling Isaac’s captivity on Malta as compelling, but I did find that their alternating POV worked well for this novel.
Hannah is a Jewish midwife living in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. Her husband, Isaac, has been captured by at sea while trying to make a fortune trading, and is waiting in Malta to be ransomed. Desperate to free her beloved husband and have him returned to her, Hannah agrees to help a wealthy Christian deliver a baby, despite the Papal edict prohibiting Jews from rendering medical aid to Christians. Immediately at odds with the Rabbi, Hannah’s decision could bring disaster to the ghetto. The Christians don’t need much of an excuse to bring death to the Jews, but Hannah is determined to earn the money to free her husband.
The first few chapters of this book are INTENSE. Hannah is willing to put the lives of everyone in the ghetto on the line to deliver the Contessa’s baby, and she is going to need a miracle if both mother and baby are to survive. Lucia has been in labor for days, and is bleeding uncontrollably. The baby is turned and won’t survive for much longer. Hannah has a terrible choice to make; save the mother or save the infant? This entire scene had me on the edge of my seat, and I couldn’t stop reading until I learned the outcome. The thought of Hannah having to use the crochet was just horrifying! And the thought that her contemporaries believed the crochet a more acceptable instrument than Hannah’s forceps gave me pause. To be accused of being a witch for developing a valuable medical tool makes no sense to my 21st century mind, but within the religious confines of 1575 Venice, witchcraft it was. If discovered, Hannah would have been imprisoned and tortured for performing witchcraft.
At times the prose kept me distanced from the characters. It felt sparse, with only the most necessary of emotions and details peppered throughout the narration. While I quickly grasped Hannah’s damp and dreary Venice, as well as Isaac’s imprisoning Malta, I wanted more. I wanted to know more about Hannah’s life in the ghetto. The historical framework was so interesting that I would have welcomed more of it.
The ending is too convenient to be believable, but overall, The Midwife of Venice is a tense, gripping read. If you enjoy historical drama, this book will be right up your alley.
Review copy provided by publisher