I Am Venus

Written by Barbara Mujica
Review by Caroline Wilson

The life of famous artist Diego Velazquez and the hypocritical mores of 17th-century Spain are brought to life by the mysterious model depicted in the artist’s controversial The Toilet of Venus. The novel opens with the young painter Velazquez, newly married to his mentor’s daughter, desperately seeking to become something more than an apprentice. The painter’s rise is meteoric, as he goes from virtual unknown to court painter in the space of a few years. This elevation earns him the enmity of not only the other court painters, but also his wife, Juana.

The novel excels at depicting the gritty and stifling world of Spanish society. The dissolute court of King Felipe expects extramarital affairs and flirtations, in which Velazquez sometimes indulges, much to the chagrin of his wife. To say that she is harping and critical is an understatement; the reader often struggles to find any sympathy for her. It is with this in mind that the ending was so surprising.

A warning to those who are particular about voice: the novel is largely written in the first-person perspective of the mysterious model. However, it shifts to third-person limited at times to capture the views of other characters. This in itself would not have been so confusing had it not been for the first-person narrator interjecting her observations (only known by her through the space of time) in the midst of another character’s third-person point of view. Since there is no regularity to this, the narrator often breaks up the flow of the story, which requires re-reading of some passages. Otherwise I Am Venus is an interesting read recommended for those who enjoy biographies with a side of historical fiction.