Thursday, October 13, 2022

Review: The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

I enjoy historical fiction (although WWII storylines need to have something extra to interest me at this point) and I am fascinated by Venice and Venetian society. I've read and enjoyed a couple of books from Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness series. So I thought that her novel, The Venice Sketchbook, this dual timeline story of uncovering secrets from a beloved deceased relative through a bequest would be enjoyable. It would be predictable, sure. How could it not with a premise like it had? And it was fine. Yep. Just fine. And that was a disappointment.

Juliet "Lettie" Browning first goes to Venice in 1928 with her formidable Aunt Hortensia. She meets a handsome Venetian man named Leonardo Da Rossi and sneaks out of her room to share a late night picnic with him, and a kiss too. She is whisked away from Venice after this but she cannot forget Leo, who, it turns out, is from a wealthy, prominent, and respected family. A decade later, after her family's financial hardship has forced her to give up her place at art college and take on the position of art mistress at an all girls school, she leads a school trip to Venice where she meets Leo again, dines with him, and discovers that he is to be married to the woman who was chosen for him at her birth. Once again she leaves and cannot forget him or the forbidden kiss they again shared. A year later she returns to Venice again, despite Europe being on the cusp of war. This time she has been granted a year's bursary, during which she will be able to take classes at the art accadamia. And again she runs into the now unhappily married Leo. The shadow of the looming war and their decade long feelings for each other create unforeseeable complications.

In 2001, Lettie's great niece Caroline is processing her divorce. Her ex is now dating a famous American pop star and he has asked for their six year old son Teddy to spend the summer with them. When Teddy is supposed to fly home to England and his mother, 9/11 happens and he has to stay in the US. Even when it's safe for him to come home, ex Josh contends that Teddy's too traumatized to fly and so won't send him home, leaving Caroline no recourse to get her son back. In the meantime, her beloved Great Aunt Lettie, who lives with the grandmother who raised Caroline, has a stroke and is clearly dying. Caroline rushes to her in time to hear her dying wish that Caroline go to Venice and that she be given the box in Lettie's closet. The box contains sketchbooks from Venice, glass beads, a ring, and an unlabeled set of keys. A bit lost without Teddy, unhappy with her job, and having unused vacation time, Caroline decides to go to Venice to scatter some of Lettie's ashes and see if she can uncover what her great aunt clearly wanted her to discover. While there, she will meet her own handsome Da Rossi.

The novel moves back and forth between the historical and the more modern day timelines. Juliet's story, told in first person through her diaries, is at least 2/3 of the novel, while Caroline's sections are third person narration and at most 1/3 of the story. Juliet's story was definitely more interesting than Caroline's so this imbalance was fine. There is a prologue that is repeated quite far into the novel which implies a very different book than the one we get. It is not a spy story. It is a love story (maybe times two). There is the ever frustrating insta-love (twice!) on which the whole story hinges. Early on, Caroline repeats, on almost every page, that she wishes Aunt Lettie had just told her what she wanted her to know rather than it being such a mystery. Granted, without this ambiguity from Aunt Lettie, there would be no story, but even so, Caroline's frustration got incredibly repetitious. The mystery of Aunt Lettie's time in Venice was never really mysterious to the reader though and the novel is littered with too many unlikely coincidences in order to make what we know has to happen actually come about. The novel is slow to start (perhaps because of all the repetition) and all of the action piles up in the end. There are many descriptive passages about Venice, really drawing a picture of the tourist areas of the city for the reader, and Bowen has focused on the feasts and celebrations that set Venetians apart, including from their fellow Italians, even to the point of continuing to hold their traditional festivals as the world sinks into WWII. Perhaps it is this sense of partying while the rest of the world burns that leads to a far less than expected amount of tension when the war does finally come to Venice. There are likewise certain plot elements that arise that should be blockbusters and yet they just peter out and get dropped. There is a kernel of a stronger story here, even with the predictable elements, and I'm sorry that it didn't come to fruition. This is okay for the romance, weak on the mystery, but a decent enough read if you're just killing time. How's that for damning it with faint praise?

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