Goodreads: Daughter of Venice
In wealthy Venetian families only one son and one daughter marry. As a younger daughter, Donata will go to live in a convent when she comes of age. But beyond the walls of the palazzo lies a Venice she has never seen and one she longs to explore before she loses the chance completely. Disguised as a boy, Donata ventures forth to find adventure, but her escapades could mean ruin for her family.
I wanted to love Daughter of Venice. It has so much going for it–a beautiful Venentian setting, a curious heroine eager to learn more about her world, and a delightful cast of characters that includes Donata’s own large and sometimes boisterous family. Donata’s world intrigued me and, like her, I wanted to explore it. However, though the book entertained me sufficiently that I finished it one sitting, I closed the pages feeling that the story could have been so much more.
Immediately the authorial voice intrudes upon the story. Donata’s father shelters her to preserve her good reputation, meaning that Donata knows little about the city in which she lives. She is, however, curious and thus naturally imparts to her readers lengthy explanations about what she does know about Venetian customs, laws, and history. Additionally, she shares whatever else she learns about Venice and its trading partners. At times, the book seems less like a story and more like an educational tool. I appreciated the information and thought it added to the setting, but I thought it could have been incorporated more naturally into the plot, so that Donata does not have to lecture to an audience.
I also felt the presence of the author in the character of Donata. While I understand and appreciate that Donata is inspired by the brave women of the Renaissance who managed to transcend gender roles and educate themselves, Donata’s almost violent reaction to arranged marriages and to the very idea of the convent seemed at times unbelievable for the period. Even if she does not desire an arranged marriage, she must recognize that many arranged marriages worked. She also seems to overlook the good that the sisters in the convent do for the community. Her mother provides some balance, speaking of the orphans the sisters help, but she can also seem a bit like an automaton repeating a lesson about the necessity of the local customs and the financial assets of various suitors. Though Donata’s views may stem from her youthful ignorance, she grows little during the course of the story and her opinions toward marriage and religion seem still confused at the end.
Aside from these issues, however, I found myself enjoying the story. I was not–and am not–convinced that the events were possible, but they entertained me and I enjoyed getting to know the various character, chief among them Donata’s family. Large families in literature seem fairly uncommon, so it is always a delight to see them interact. I particularly enjoyed Donata’s relationship with her older sister, whom she clearly admires, and her twin, who sacrifices so much for Donata to follow her heart. Other key moments include the teasing of Donata’s older brothers, the attempts of her younger brother to earn treats for keeping silent about Donata’s movements, and the playtime with the younger siblings. The everyday moments are what make the story shine.
This was the first time I have read anything by Donna Jo Napoli and, though I had difficulty believing Donata’s story could have happened, the vivid setting and the family dynamics immersed me in the story enough that I would like to try some of Napoli’s other works.