Review: The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano is an exceptional first novel written by Marina Fiorato, who is herself half Venetian and a graduate of the University of Venice. Her love of the city and its history comes through clearly. It’s a very romantic story, full of intrigue and heartbreak; to understand it, a little history is helpful.

Murano is well-known for its art glass, its millefiori and its chandeliers, but its artisans were virtual prisoners on the island. In 1291, all of Venice’s glassblowers were forced to move to the island of Murano; the city leaders were terrified of fire, and the furnaces were considered a danger to the city. There was also a darker motive: the move gave the government control of the artisans and their movements around the city. Venetian glassmaking was the best in the world and these leaders wanted to make sure the secrets remained in Venice.

In The Glassblower of Murano, stories of past and present and woven together, giving a vivid picture of both. It is the story of two Leonoras — one, an orphan in old Venice, the other, Nora, a modern woman, recently divorced and looking to make peace with her past and find her own future. The orphan Leonora is the illegitimate daughter of Corradino Manin, an exceptionally talented glassblower who has developed a technique for the crafting of mirrors that is greatly coveted by the French. Manin is himself an orphan; his family was murdered by The Ten, a secretive government agency, when a jealous brother denounces them. He is spared only by luck — he was watching a glassblower at work and was not at home when the death squad came. He is raised by the glassblower and eventually becomes famous enough in his own right to again draw the attention of The Ten.

Nora has come to Venice to escape the memories of a failed marriage and to reclaim some of her history. She is a direct descendant of Leonora and Corradino Manin, as well as an artist and glassblower. She was born in Venice; her mother had fallen in love with a young Venetian, become pregnant, and eventually left the young man and the city behind. He died soon after and young Leonora was left with only vague memories of the city and her father.

In Murano, Nora is hired on as a glassblower for one reason alone: her famous last name. She has talent, but there are no female glassblowers. The owner of the foundry hopes to use Nora’s name and likeness to build his business, so he gives her training and an opportunity to become Murano’s first maestra. Unfortunately, that does not endear her to the other glassblowers in his employ. In particular, one young man, a descendant of the glassblower who raised and mentored Corradino, is set on her destruction.

Corradino’s story is revealed in bits and pieces. It is clear early on that he has defected and become a traitor — his talent is responsible for Versailles’ lovely Hall of Mirrors — but his reasons are revealed only gradually. Nora’s enemy has evidence of his treachery and publicly discredits him, but Nora still hopes to salvage his reputation and her own opportunities.

The romance is fairly predictable: Nora meets a young man in Venice, falls for him, and he helps her in her search for her history. It is strikingly similar to the story of Nora’s mother and it gives the history some grounding in the present day.

The history is fascinating and kept me intrigued through a romantic story that I would otherwise have set aside. Fiorato’s familiarity with the city shines through in lavish descriptions and details. She is making a name for herself in the genre — a second novel, The Madonna of the Almonds, was released earlier this month and a third, The Botticelli Secret, is scheduled for release in 2010.

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