Picks and Pans Review: Critic's Choice In the Company of the Courtesan

updated 02/20/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

By Sarah Dunant

In 1527, Fiammetta Bianchini, an irresistible courtesan who has bedded Rome's choicest nobles, hastily flees her home as Spanish and German troops invade the city, raping and pillaging as they go. Stripped of her lavish gowns and prestige, she makes her way to Venice, where she struggles to build a new client list and regain her elite status. Her aides-de-camp in the opulent, and still peaceful, Venice include one former arch-enemy and a blind, hunched female healer. Add in a quick-witted dwarf— Fiammetta's always-loyal sidekick Bucino, who spiritedly narrates this smart novel—and in less sure hands you'd have a circus. But with a story-teller like Sarah Dunant at the helm, In the Company of the Courtesan is a captivating adventure. As in her last book, 2004's The Birth of Venus, Dunant re-creates Renaissance Italy without a misstep, here bringing Venice's canals, churches, back alleys and behind-the-scenes machinations brightly to light. As Fiammetta and Bucino's fortunes rise and fall and rise again, Dunant's boisterous but affecting story never flags for a second.

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