Thursday, April 10, 2008

Book Review: The Rossetti Letter

One of my favorite genres is historical fiction. So how could I resist a novel that describes itself as "A novel of seventeenth-century Venice and a modern woman's search for a courtesan's secret history"? And it was on the Bargain Table at Barnes & Noble as well!

So I traded spaceships for gondolas.

The novel begins on 3 March 1618. A young courtesan is delivering a letter exposing the plot of the Spanish ambassador and the Spanish Viceroy of Naples to take over the Republic of Venice. She knows her letter puts the one she loves in mortal danger. But to not deliver the letter could mean the end of her City-State.

Flash forward: Claire Donovan, doctoral candidate in Medieval European history is delivering a lecture about the "Spanish Conspiracy" to a local historical society. Key to her lecture, and her doctoral thesis, is the Rossetti Letter--the letter written by the aforementioned young courtesan, Alessandra Rossetti. The lecture does not go well. In fact, Claire faints. This rather sums up the last two years of her life. She took time off to care for her mother, who was stricken with cancer, delaying her doctoral thesis, and her husband asked for a divorce the day of her mother's funeral. Claire has become a hermit, living in her pajamas while she looks through the available records trying to find out if Alessandra was a pawn in the Conspiracy or a patriot, and what happened to her after she delivers the letter to the Venetian Doge and Council.

Claire discovers there is a conference about the Conspiracy scheduled in Venice. At the conference, another researcher will present a talk based on a book she is writing about Alessandra Rossetti. If this book is published before Claire has finished her thesis, especially if the book refutes Claire's thesis, then all of Claire's work will be for naught. Unfortunately, Claire can't afford to travel to Venice.

A friend comes up with a solution. A young high-school student needs a chaperone for a week while her father and new stepmother are on their honeymoon in Nice. Claire can take the girl to Venice, then deliver the girl to her parents in Paris a week later. Claire accepts.

The girl, Gwendolyn, is a modern wealthy 14-year-old: pampered, privileged, and insecure. She and Claire don't hit it off, but they're stuck with each other for a week.

Meanwhile, back in the early 17th Century, Alessandra has problems of her own. Her father and brother have gone down in a shipwreck and her patron has mismanaged what little money she had. She does not have enough money for a dowry, either for marriage or for the convent, unless she wants to become one of the servant class nuns. Alessandra does not have the temperament for the convent nor does she relish becoming a common prostitute. A legendary courtesan, La Celestia, comes to her rescue with a third alternative: becoming a courtesan. Alessandra has the looks, she has the learning, what she needs is the polish. Under La Celestia's tutelage, Alessandra becomes renown, with five powerful men as her lovers. One of these men is the Spanish Ambassador.

But things in Venice are not always what they seem--not in 1618 nor in the present day. Claire chases the ghost of Alessandra while we see what she is doing. Meanwhile, Claire is coming out of her hibernation and learning to enjoy life, especially the attention of men. Gwendolyn, of course, turns out not to be a total brat and even begins to appreciate some of the history that surrounds her.

The author, Christi Phillips, did a great deal of research into European history and wrote a couple of pages about what is actually known about the Spanish Conspiracy and life in Venice during that era. I appreciate that--it's so easy to forget that this is fiction, that there is no Alessandra Rossetti and no letter. The Rossetti Letter is Ms. Phillips' first novel and that sort of shows in her style, which is a little rough in places. But I like the way the book ended--not all the loose ends are neatly tied up, leading me to wonder if another Claire Donovan novel is on the horizon. I kind of hope so.

This is a good vacation/beach/airplane novel. Just enough sex (Alessandra is a courtesan, after all!), lots of description of Venice, some intrigue, some violence (it's the early 17th-Century and life is cheap), no foul language.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

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