I Am Venus by Bárbara Mujica
Author: Bárbara Mujica
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Spain / Velazquez / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Marriage / Court Life / Art)
Publisher/Publication Date: Overlook (6/13/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The mysterious model of Velazquez's famous nude tells her story.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do, very much -- it's the painting at the heart of this novel. The font is super precious, but I kind of love it.
First line: I was reclining on the divan facing the wall, my back to the artist.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like historical fiction about artists or enjoy novels set in Spain.
Why did I get this book?: I was intrigued by the setting.
Review: Despite the title, this novel focuses on the many women in artist Diego Velázquez's sphere, from his wife to the unknown model of his famous picture, the Rokeby Venus.
Set in 17th century Spain, narrated by the unnamed nude, the reader is introduced to, among others, Velázquez's devoted wife Juana, their minxy maid Lidia, the bawdy madam Cintia. The artist himself is rather shadowy, desperate to make a name for himself at the Spanish court, obsessed with rising above his humble beginnings to achieve not just fame as a painter but power as a courtier. The women -- his family, his fans -- make up the focus of the story; their devotion and love for Velázquez means they'll do anything for his success. The nude model who became his Venus risked excommunication and death if her identity was ever discovered.
I loved Mujica's focus on the women: their 'narrow' sphere provided a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere to look at court life, marriage, religion, and art. The historical ambiance shone in the narrative, especially in Mujica's poetic descriptions of landscapes and events ('The convent grounds are a needlepoint of oranges, browns, and yellows', p240). The narrator occasionally slips from past to present tense as she recounts the story as she knows it and shares details about her present place -- odd, but not as jarring as I expected given my dislike of present tense novels. Mujica's 'voice' for the narrator is sometimes casually modern, but it made me think of a cranky old woman telling rude stories to be shocking; our heroine is no delicate romance novel heroine.
A quick read (about 300 pages), this book would appeal to those who love reading about art and artists, Spanish history, and/or court intrigue (the excess and hypocrisy of Philip IV's court rivals that of any other royal hist fic!). Mujica is a new-to-me author, but I'm eager to get her two previous novels as she takes on other intriguing women -- Frida Kahlo and Saint Teresa de Avila.