In her debut novel, Roberta Rich tells the story of Hannah Levi, a Jewish midwife living in 16th century Venice. Hannah’s reputation as a skilled midwife spread to the Venetian nobility which prompts a visit under the cover of darkness to her home in the Ghetto Nuovo. The Conte di Padovani’s wife Lucia had been in labour for days with no results and is near death herself; only Hannah has the skills and tools to save their lives. As Lucia’s life and that of her unborn child hangs in the balance, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. It is forbidden by a papal edict for Jews to treat Christians and the punishments are severe. The Conte is desperate and Hannah strikes a deal with him; she will embark on this dangerous mission and risk everything but for a fee of 200 ducats—a sum great enough to pay her husband’s ransom.
Hannah’s husband Isaac was captured in Malta and has been enslaved for months by the Knights of St. John. He is sold to the highest bidder, a nun who attempts to convert him to Christianity. When he refuses he is sold to Joseph, a tyrant of a slave owner. Isaac soon plots his escape from the island of Malta with devastating results.
Throughout the story Rich skips back and forth between Hannah’s story in Venice and Isaac’s in Malta – telling the story of the husband and wife both struggling for survival and their desire to be reunited with each other.
I enjoyed reading The Midwife of Venice. I found it to be rich in historical detail concerning the plight of the Jews; the social and religious customs and the overall detail given about 16th century Venice. The female characters in the story are strong and determined and the y face challenges head on however they are not necessarily believable. Even though Hannah faces a lot of challenges and danger, things somehow work out perfectly for her . . . almost too perfectly, I was actually hoping that something bad or unexpected would happen to her. I also found that Isaac really bothered me—he was described as being perfect and beautiful ‘The Midwife of Venice’ . . . ). This might have been because the book was split into two narratives—if Rich had of focused on one storyline in this book and the other in another book; I think that I would have enjoyed the story more. Being split into the two narratives did not allow for as much detail of each story as I would have liked.
Another issue I had with this book was that there was really no sense of time—I had no idea if only a few days or months had passed. Finally, I have to say that I was disappointed with the ending—it just sort of ended, like the author had just decided to stop writing. If this was done intentionally as there is a sequel in the works, then congratulations, you are keeping us in suspense.