Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Rossetti Letter, by Chrsti Phillips

I picked this up on from a "Buy one, get one half price" table while on vacation in Palm Springs, and only got around to it now. It's a great book for a vacation: interesting, not too taxing, paperback and inexpensive so you could leave it behind to save room in your bag.

The plot unfolds in parallel: in 1618, a Venetian courtesan becomes aware of a plot to overthrow the Republic and make Venice part of Spain. This is an actual historical event--of some controversy--known as the "Spanish Conspiracy." The second plot takes place in modern times, as a graduate student works on her dissertation about he Spanish Conspiracy. The core of her work is the letter, allegedly written by the 17th century courtesan, Alessandra Rossetti, warning the government of the conspiracy and naming the traitors.

The graduate student, Claire Donovan, manages to make her way to Venice to find out about a book that is soon to be published by an Oxford historian on the same topic. The publication of this book could render her entire dissertation moot, and it is important that she find out what the author intends to disclose.

Of course, it turns out that the author is an unpleasant man that Claire met and disliked before she knew who he was. As she finds out at the conference she is attending, the thesis of his book is that the "Spanish Conspiracy" was invented by a Venetian senator to advance his political career, and the "Rossetti Letter" was written by a woman who was a mere pawn in a larger game. Of course, Claire's thesis is the exact opposite, and she wants to prove her point.

So there is a lot of wrangling between these academic, although no actual romance blooms between them. In the end, they manage to work together to translate Rossetti's letters, which they discover are actually coded messages. The key to breaking the code is discovered rather conveniently, mere minutes after they have decided there must be a code--which feels a bit too pat, but since the puzzle is clearly presented and worked out for the reader, it's a small quibble. As a result of their combined research, Claire and Andrew conclude that they were both right--there was a Spanish conspiracy, but in the absence of enough evidence to prove it, the Venetian senator forced Rossetti to write the letter "revealing" it. Andrew turns his last lecture at the conference to Claire (which is a bizarre thing to do, but since this is fiction, just let it go) and Claire outlines their theories as to what happened back in 1618.

At this point (since their research certainly doesn't bear this out at all), the book shifts us back in time to see Alessandra Rossetti attempting to escape Venice with her compromised lover, her capture and her deal with the senator--she will write the letter as he dictates it to her, and he will let her lover go free. Claire wraps up her lecture, she and Andrew part on amicable terms, and the book sets up the sequel, where Claire will take a one year post at Oxford, and she and Andrew will solve another mystery.

There are a few annoying scenes that place this book solidly into genre fiction. Alessandra Rossetti--of course!--has to be a courtesan, who is the "most beautiful woman in Venice" and we are dragged through a couple of sex scenes that are both gratuitous and not very well written either Similarly, the bad, evil, nasty Venetian senator is not only ambitious, but ugly, misshapen, and enjoys torturing people for information. Characters are generally painted with the broadest of strokes, and tend to be rather unbelievable.

On the other hand, Phillips does take on a number of subplots, which are more ambitious than effective, but do expand the scope of the novel. For example, Andrew is involved with a beautiful, cultured and famous woman, and any possible romance between him and Claire is stifled as a result. There is a long subplot about Claire's relationship with the 14 year old girl she is chaperoning in Venice, which gives another dimension to her character. There is a romantic possibility with a "drop dead gorgeous" Italian, who turns out to be an architect from a wealthy family--and she also manages to not have a romance with him either. Alessandra Rossetti doesn't get the happiest of ending herself--although on the whole, everyone in the book gets what they wanted, so it's not entirely free from convention.

This is a book which wades in the same waters as The Da Vinci Code, although better written and with fewer puzzles in it. The prose is deft, and Phillips obviously loves Venice for all its faults. Phillips has written a book that avoids the pitfalls that so crippled The Birth of Venus, which also took place in Renaissance Italy, but managed to clumsily cram in every famous Italian who could possibly be force into the story.

This is by no means a "must read" book, but it is a pleasant and diverting story, about a historical event I had never even heard of before reading it.

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