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When Nora's stuffy surgeon husband leaves her for another woman, she sells up and heads to Venice, the city where she was born and from where her father - who dies when she was very young - was from. She knows she is descended from Corradino Manin a famous seventeenth century Venetian glassmaker and, as an artist herself, she decides to see if she can find a job in a glassworks. When she gets there, however, she soon finds out that not everyone shares the view that Manin is a hero so she sets out to find out the truth about her revered ancestor.
The story is told in (almost) alternating chapters between the past and the present. I found this rather predictable but it probably made me keep reading because I would race through the somewhat unnecessary modern day thread to get back to the history of Corradino. There are rather too convenient echoes of the seventeenth century in the present day part of the plot which would have irritated me if I had not been so enthralled by the other side of the story. In Venice Nora reverts to her birth name Leonora, back in the seventeenth century Manin has a daughter called Leonora. Nora learns that her mother fell in love with her father because he looked like a character from a famous painting, while in Venice Nora falls for Alessandro, a policeman who looks uncannily like a character from a painting. Romantic or irritating, you decide...
But over-riding these irritations, there are two reasons this is such a great book. The first is the author's skill in depicting 'La Serenissima' - Venice. The two parts of the novel echo each other in this respect and emphasise how much history Venice holds and how little it has changed. As well as the buildings Marina Fiorata describes Venetian culture and lifestyle and how this differs from other parts of Italy. From the back street bars that the tourists never find to the vaporetti that are the public transport of the city, the author conveys a really authentic feeling for Venice.
The other triumph is the fascinating account of the work and position of glassmakers in Venice over the centuries. Venice has long been associated with the manufacture of fine glass, in particular on the island of Murano. In the seventeenth century the city was under the authority of the Doge but it was a sinister group of influential men called 'The Ten' that knew everything that went on in Venice - a kind of early Venetian mafia if you like. In order to protect the secrets of the Venetian glassmaking industry and prevent the skilled craftsmen taking their skills elsewhere, the industry was moved to Murano and the glassmakers were effectively prisoners there, only able to leave the island to go to the mainland - under supervision - to take the particulars of new commissions.
Marina Fiorata gives an excellent overview of the old and new ways of making glass products without becoming too technical and getting bogged down in detail. She also conveys the heat and the sheer hard work that is all part and parcel of the manufacture of handmade glass as well as the demanding and perfectionist nature of the people who do this kind of work.
Something that disappointed me was the lack of detail about 'The Ten'; I kept reading about their power and influence but it never really went much further than that. There was, at the beginning, a brief mention of the boxes in walls through which citizens could post letters denouncing others but no real development of this detail and it was one that really intrigued me. Who were 'The Ten'? How did men become part of 'The Ten'? I was quite frustrated by this.
'The Glassblower of Murano' is one of this summer's widely promoted books and it's easy to see why. Set in an attractive location it marks one of the boxes for summer reads; it also has an element of romance both in terms of the relationship between Nora and Alessandro as well as the idea of this young woman moving to Venice and hoping to follow in the footsteps of her celebrated ancestor. Finally it has the historical aspect without being a heavy read and this seems to be a winning ingredient these days. I would certainly draw parallels between this novel and Victoria Hislop's runaway success "The Island" with the common thread being a central character of a young woman who looks to the past to put the present day into context.
For all I found niggling annoyances in this book I really did enjoy it; I found it engaging, fascinating and suspenseful. It's an easy but stimulating read that should be included in any holiday packing this summer.