The Midwife of Venice

The Midwife of Venice

Paperback - 2011
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At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin. Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters. Through the mist rising from the canal the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo. Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous. 

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.


Hannah Levi is known throughout sixteenth-century Venice for her skill in midwifery. When a Christian count appears at Hannah's door in the Jewish ghetto imploring her to attend his labouring wife, who is nearing death, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. Not only is it illegal for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians, it's also punishable by torture and death. Moreover, as her Rabbi angrily points out, if the mother or child should die, the entire ghetto population will be in peril.

But Hannah's compassion for another woman's misery overrides her concern for self-preservation. The Rabbi once forced her to withhold care from her shunned sister, Jessica, with terrible consequences. Hannah cannot turn away from a labouring woman again. Moreover, she cannot turn down the enormous fee offered by the Conte. Despite the Rabbi's protests, she knows that this money can release her husband, Isaac, a merchant who was recently taken captive on Malta as a slave. There is nothing Hannah wants more than to see the handsome face of the loving man who married her despite her lack of dowry, and who continues to love her despite her barrenness. She must save Isaac.

Meanwhile, far away in Malta, Isaac is worried about Hannah's safety, having heard tales of the terrifying plague ravaging Venice. But his own life is in terrible danger. He is auctioned as a slave to the head of the local convent, Sister Assunta, who is bent on converting him to Christianity. When he won't give up his faith, he's traded to the brutish lout Joseph, who is renowned for working his slaves to death. Isaac soon learns that Joseph is heartsick over a local beauty who won't give him the time of day. Isaac uses his gifts of literacy and a poetic imagination--not to mention long-pent-up desire--to earn his day-to-day survival by penning love letters on behalf of his captor and a paying illiterate public.

Back in Venice, Hannah packs her ""birthing spoons"--secret rudimentary forceps she invented to help with difficult births--and sets off with the Conte and his treacherous brother. Can she save the mother? Can she save the baby, on whose tiny shoulders the Conte's legacy rests? And can she also save herself, and Isaac, and their own hopes for a future, without endangering the lives of everyone in the ghetto?

The Midwife of Venice is a gripping historical page-turner, enthralling readers with its suspenseful action and vivid depiction of life in sixteenth-century Venice. Roberta Rich has created a wonderful heroine in Hannah Levi, a lioness who will fight for the survival of the man she loves, and the women and babies she is duty-bound to protect, carrying with her the best of humanity's compassion and courage.

Publisher: [Toronto] : Doubleday Canada, c2011
ISBN: 9780385668279
Branch Call Number: FIC RIC
Characteristics: 329 p. ; 21 cm


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Aug 22, 2017

Story line is boring. But, the historical settings and the way that the Venetians lived makes it an interesting read.

Apr 01, 2017

While the book is not accurate about aspects of the Jewish ghetto the majority of the story is engaging and a quick read with a strong and clever female lead.

May 02, 2016

Our afternoon book club gave this book a 5.6. It was a pretty even split in that half the group quite enjoyed it and the other half really didn't. Those like/dislike meetings make for great discussion!

hershnatash May 20, 2013

This book is horrible. Most of the facts about Jewish Orthodox life are completely wrong and false. For example, "shadai" is one of the many names of G-d - NOT an amulet. Jews do not put their trust in amulets - only in G-d. Also, Jews in the ghetto DID NOT speak fluent Italian. They spoke Yiddish and Hebrew. There was not even a possibility that Jews had any desire to keep contact with any non-Jews. The author did NOT do a good job on the research aspect. This story would have NEVER happened - EVER - in any kind of history (even in parallel universes).
Go read a different book

Jan 16, 2013

A good read with interesting historic perspective. The husband's side of the story is implausible, and like many good stories the end seems to get rushed together to sum it up neatly. But I still enjoyed the history, having seen this area of Vencie, it was interesting to imagine the life of the people there at that time.

VaughanPLDaniela Nov 16, 2012


Oct 21, 2012

Although I read the book in it's entirety, it was only because it was so ridiculous and improbable. I would not recommend it.

Jun 26, 2012

If you like history you'll enjoy this though it is fiction but the premise could be real although it probably wouldn't have ended so happily in real times.

BPLNextBestAdults Jun 05, 2012

Hannah is a skilled midwife living in the Jewish ghetto in 16th century Venice. Her husband has been captured at sea and living as a slave in Malta. She is desperate to bring him home, but with no money, she is unable to do so. One evening, against her Rabbi’s wishes, she agrees to help a Christian woman during a difficult birth. Hoping to pay her husband’s ransom, she has been offered a great deal of money by the woman’s distraught husband. What ensues becomes a fast-paced historical thriller, where Hannah is running for her life from people who think nothing of destroying her life and the lives of her family. Great choice for historical fiction readers.

Mar 02, 2012

I found this to be only an 'okay' read and in particular found the ending to seem really rushed. I expected a lot more.

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racing14 Jul 06, 2011

Historical novels can open windows onto the past, shedding light on parts of society previously hidden from view. Already segregated because of their religion, and with their influence kept to the private sphere, the lives of Jewish women in Renaissance Venice were more concealed than many.

In her debut novel, Roberta Rich introduces a unique heroine, and her wry humour leavens a serious subject. Not wholly an intense social drama or an over-the-top adventure, The Midwife of Venice is a quirky yet diverting blend of both.

For those looking for a meaty historical novel that leaves no loose ends, this may not be the best book to choose. But if you might like seeing Jewish folklore and Mediterranean history wrapped into a rousing story, suspend your disbelief for a time and follow along with Hannah and Isaac as they fight their way back to one another.
"Reading the Past"

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