The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

Fiction – print. Gallery Books, 2012. 352 pgs. Purchased.

In sixteenth century Venice, Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians and confines all Jews to a squalled ghetto, which they are forbidden from leaving after nightfall. Late one evening, a wealthy Count arrives with the ghetto’s rabbi in an attempt to solicit the midwifery services of Hannah Levi, a woman renowned throughout the city of Venice for her skill with complicated deliveries. Hannah wants to refuse the request for her help as she fears the edict and the possibility that the Count might decide her secret “birthing spoons” (very crude forceps) were a gift for the Devil.

Yet the outrageous sum of money the Count offers for her services is more than enough of a temptation for Hannah. Her husband, Isaac, was captured at sea and sold to people claiming to be defenders of the Christian faith, and Venice’s rabbinical council has been unable to negotiate for his release. The Count’s payment would allow Hannah to travel to Malta, where her husband is being held, to ransom Isaac before the slave traders and abusive merchants can work him to death.

The first few chapters of this book hold an immense amount of promise setting the stage for a perilous and ethical decision – should Hannah use her God-given gift for midwifery when it could cause her to permanently lose her husband, could put her community in danger, and could cause her to lose her own life? And does she dare use her “birthing spoons” that even her rabbi had qualms about blessing? Rich also provides detailed descriptions of the scenery of sixteenth century Venice, which help to explain the rampant anti-Semitism in this region and highlight how perilous life is during this time for both Jews and women whether they are Christian or not, pregnant or not.

And then the whole story begins to fall apart. Rich repeatedly asserts that the noble family Hannah has been called to assist would also face prosecution if the Papal authority learned they had solicited the services of a Jewish midwife for a Christian mother and child. Yet the family invites her to dine with them in the weeks after the birth breaking social customs and the law, which conveniently provides Rich with the opportunity to plant Hannah right in the middle of a plot to kidnap the newborn child. Her sister, Jessica, is conveniently introduced after Hannah flees the house to provide Hannah with a place of refuge, and their tenuous relationship is quickly explained and patched up in a few pages.

The narrative abruptly shifts to Malta where a cruel man and a nun from the local abbey are in a bidding war over Isaac, which interrupted the suspense of Hannah’s story, and then continues to jump back and forth from Venice to Malta throughout the book. I imagine this was done to show the peril facing both Isaac and Hannah, to show why Hannah was so determined to rescue her husband.

However, other than Hannah learning how her husband refuses to leave her over her barrenness despite the Rabbi’s pressure, there was nothing about the introduction of Isaac to the story that added dimensions to both his characterization and his and Hannah’s relationship. And I ended up largely skimming sections devoted to the subplot of him helping a slave trader with his love affair.

The timeline rang false for this time period. So much of the action occurs in a span of a few days, including the Count sailing away to another city and news of his death from the plague arriving the next day – rather amazing speed given the time period – that the plot begins to feel even more convenient and farfetched. I just could not get over the idea of a woman in 1575 being named Jessica.

And neither, apparently, could the previous owner of this book because they littered the pages of this novel with a bunch of questions marks and attempted to take notes on the plot on the back cover.

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5 thoughts on “The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

  1. I don’t know this novel, but just thought it worth a mention that Shakespeare has a character called Jessica (Shylock’s daughter) in The Merchant of Venice (1596-ish?). I usually find previous owners’ notes and underlinings very distracting, but in this case it seems that the previous reader supported your own view.

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      1. A minor detail, and one that doesn’t seem to help with all the other issues this book seems to raise. It’s not really Shakespeare’s best play anyway 😊

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