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Vivaldi’s Virgins Brings Together Fiction, History and Great Music

April 11, 2010
Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick
published by HarperCollins July 3, 2007

Anna Maria was abandoned, as an infant, at the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice, a foundling home and music school, where she is being raised with the other orphans. Because of her remarkable musical talent, she is spared a life of drudgery and devotes herself to becoming an accomplished violinist. As part of the figlie di coro, “daughters of the choir,” she performs for kings and nobles as well as priests. The maestro, Antonio Vivaldi, “the Red Priest of Venice,” takes a special interest in Maria and composes music for her to perform.

At fourteen, yearning for a rich life and a sense of belonging outside the convent walls, she is determined to learn where she comes from. Who are her parents? Is her mother alive, and if so, why doesn’t she come for her? Sister Laura, who has taken a special interest in Anna Maria and her music, encourages her to write to her mother, hinting that she might have a way to deliver the letters. Yet the secret of Anna Maria’s birth remains a closed book.

This novel alternates between a epistolary story, as Anna Maria writes to her mother, and her memories and reflections as a 40-year-old woman. The two parallel voices — the intense adolescent Anna Maria, longing for a different life, and the more circumspect lady, who knows who she is and has learned to find joy in small things — work beautifully. And the author couldn’t have chosen a more delicious setting for a historical novel.

Ah … Venice. Someday, I’m going to be on a plane, heading there! Seventeenth-century Venice is lavishly beautiful, a place of gondolas, carnivals, and sacred architecture. It is a world of contradictions, both pious and decadent. Half the year is spent in an elaborate carnival, where masked people revel in the streets, but many live in poverty or in the crowded Jewish ghetto. The arts flourish, yet artists’ patrons, the Venetian nobility, is like a collection of fruit, beautiful and vividly colorful on the outside but rotten under the skin. This is the decadent but beautiful culture that Napoleon will easily conquer at the end of the century.

Immersed in this setting, Anna Maria’s story is an appealing coming of age tale about a gifted, passionate, spirited girl. It is enhanced by the mystery of Anna Maria’s parentage, with some twists and revealed secrets that were not difficult to figure out, but kept me turning pages nevertheless.

I also loved the music woven into the story — Vivaldi is probably my favorite classical composer.  This “freakish violinist and eccentric cleric” didn’t enjoy real success until several centuries after his death. Barbara Quick included a discography at the end of the novel, encouraging readers to listen to the music in which she immersed herself while writing Vivaldi’s Virgins.

And although I don’t usually pay much attention to book covers — after all I’m not looking at the cover while reading the novel 🙂 — isn’t the cover art on Vivaldi’s Virgins gorgeous? It is taken from several paintings from the time and place where this book is set:

Young Girl Wearing a Pearl Earring by Pietro Antonio Rotari, an 18th century Venetian painter (yes, the earring has been photoshopped out)

and an 18th century painting of The Guidecca and San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

Vivaldi’s Virgins is a vibrant historical novel that will appeal to readers of both adult and YA fiction. Have you read this novel or any of the author’s other work? If so, what did you think? Are there other good novels set in 18th century Venice?

Other Reviews: Reading Extravaganza; Mostly Fiction; Violin and Books


7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2010 8:56 pm

    Venice, music and art – what a lovely post.The book sounds a good one too. :-)I haven't read any of Barbara Quick's but I did see one mentioned last week – The Golden Web (I think) and the reviewer only read a few pages because of the 'archaic language'.I can think of a few books set in Venice but at an earlier period than 18th century.

  2. April 11, 2010 9:18 pm

    I loved reading your beautiful review of my 2007 novel, VIVALDI'S VIRGINS–and was especially delighted by the image of Rotari's painting (which was, yes, Photo-shopped for the cover when I told my editor, No–there's no way that a cloistered girl at the Ospedale della Pieta would have been allowed to wear any earrings at all!)Please visit my websitehttp://www.BarbaraQuick.comand click on the image of A GOLDEN WEB in the upper left corner, to learn all about my brand-new novel, just published this week. I'm sure my publicist at HarperTeen will be glad to send you a review copy.Let me know, Stephanie, if you'd be interested in doing an author interview.All best wishes,Barbara

  3. April 11, 2010 10:07 pm

    I haven't read anything by this author but this sounds really good. Her new book was just released last week – it's called A Golden Web and it set in 14th century Bologna about a woman anatomist. It's labeled YA, but the author thinks adults will enjoy it as well.

  4. April 12, 2010 1:09 am

    *sigh*Another book for the TBR list.Marina might enjoy it too. Especially since she went to Venice at fifteen. (Lucky thing!)Peace and Laughter,Cristina

  5. April 12, 2010 1:55 am

    I just read and enjoyed Quick's A GOLDEN WEB – now, I have to read this one. Glad you enjoyed it!

  6. April 14, 2010 3:00 am

    What a wonderful review! You might not know this but…Venice is my absolute favourite place in the world (and I post alot about it on my blog). Also- I just finished A Golden Web, by B. Quick (posting my review tomorrow)-she is a fantastic author. I will be reading Vivaldi's Virgins very soon- For Sure. Thanks!

    • June 23, 2010 4:32 pm

      Thanks to all of you for your kind and encouraging words!

      Believe me, in today’s world of publishing–where YA novels that are not about vampires, paranormal phenomena or the author’s vision of dystopia DO NOT STAND A CHANCE–it’s very heartening to know that readers like you are still out there.

      I want to ask your advice (all of you!).

      A GOLDEN WEB has gotten beautiful reviews–and I’ve done many detailed and heartfelt author interviews–on many YA book review blogs. But the novel is still not reaching a lot of readers–partly because Barnes and Noble is now turning up their corporate nose at YA historical or literary fiction. (I’m trying not to take it personally….)

      What’s a working writer to do? I’ve heard so much about the viral power of the Internet to spread the word about a book. I’m waiting and hoping. (I’m struggling–honest to God, I’m having a very hard time of it.) Winning a major award, getting 14 translations and fabulous reviews online: none of it seems to make a bit of difference in terms of being able to earn a living.

      Help, help, help–I need your ideas! I wrote both VIVALDI’S VIRGINS and A GOLDEN WEB with a thrilling sense of feeling inspired by the heroines of these novels. I want to carry on with my career–to write more books that readers like you will love.

      Will you make a louder noise, please? Let publishers and bookstores–the chains, too!–know that your taste extends far beyond the latest trendy teenage novel.

      The literary world will be a very anemic place if the only novels that yield book contracts for their authors are about vampires or the end of the world.


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