The Rossetti Letter

Christi Phillips
2008 reissue of 2007 release, Historical Fiction (Contemporary/1600s Venice)
Pocket, $14.00, 434 pages, Amazon ASIN 1416527389

Grade: B
Sensuality: Warm

Conceptually, The Rossetti Letter is similar to Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series: Both tell the modern day stories of doctoral candidates in Europe, searching for a mystery lost in the crumbling papers and bound books of the past, and at the same time recounting the historical story about the people they are researching. However, this is where the similarities end. While Willig’s books are very much romances, this one, the author’s debut novel, is strictly historical fiction. It is also a beautifully described and fascinating story that is sure to win over lovers from genres.

PhD candidate Claire Donovan is researching the Venetian Conspiracy of 1618 and the role one courtesan is reported to have played in revealing the Spanish and Neapolitan plans to invade Florence. As it is a relatively obscure historical topic, she thinks she can do it – until she learns that one Andrea Kent is lecturing at a conference in Venice on the same topic. All hope is almost lost, until a unique opportunity comes up: Act as a chaperon for one troubled teenager and the girl’s wealthy father will pay for Claire’s trip to Venice.

Once she arrives, however, she soon learns that “Andrea” Kent is actually Andrew, an insufferable Brit with whom Claire had several arguments at the airport and a restaurant. Even worse, his upcoming book discounts the Rossetti Letter, the subject on which Claire is basing her entire thesis. She knows she must discover the key to the mystery – who Alessandra Rossetti was, how she was connected to the conspiracy, and what happened to her – before Andrew’s book destroys her chances at getting her degree.

Meanwhile, in 1617 Venice, Alessandra Rosetti, an orphaned, destitute young woman, catches the eye of the most infamous courtesan in Venice. She is taken under her wing and molded into the next great courtesan. Among her patrons is the Ambassador of Spain. One day, a man appears at her house, saying that he has a message for the Ambassador and he won’t leave until he can deliver it. He then promptly collapses. When he wakes up several days later, Alessandra learns he is Antonio Perez, a viscount, messenger, and assassin sent by a Spanish duke, one of the co-conspirators of the plot. Even as she knows something is going on, Alessandra begins to fall for Antonio, and must decide where her loyalties lie: with the one she loves, or with Venice.

A quote on the back cover of the book says that it will make you want to jump on a plane to Venice. That assessment is quite accurate. Phillips’ biggest strength is in her lush, sensual descriptions of the city, both in the early 1600s and now. She easily conveys the magic of the ancient city, making it a very visual reading experience. The story is full of rich characters, sensuality, suspense, intrigue, and spies. Phillips writes evocatively and tells a story that is, at times, gripping, surprising, and emotional.

That said, despite the splendor and romance of Venice, this is not a romance novel. If you’re looking for a neatly wrapped happily ever after, this is not the book for you. The ending of Alessandra’s story is bittersweet, and no real conclusion is reached in terms of Clare’s relationship, though there’s a potential for a continuance in Phillips' next book due out this fall.

I was, however, overwhelmed by some of the characters in the historical part of the story; there were just too many Italians and Spanish whose names blurred in my mind. The book provides a Cast of Characters that was helpful, however, since flipping back and forth from the story to the guide is detrimental to smooth reading, it would have been better if the reader didn’t need the guide. I also thought that the division of historical versus modern sections was unbalanced at times, and occasionally one section of either would fall flat.

Phillips shows great promise with her debut novel. I’m confident she will meet with much success among historical fiction fans, and I’m excited to read her upcoming book.

-- Jane Granville

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