Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Rossetti Letter, by Christi Phillips

Christi Phillips' The Rossetti Letter is a valiant effort for a first novel. It tells the stories of two women; the modern day Claire Donovan and the historical Alessandra Rossetti. Claire Donovan is a PhD student writing a paper on the Venetian courtesan Alessandra Rossetti who wrote a secret letter to the Venetian Council warning of a Spanish plot to overthrow the Venetian Republic in 1618. When she discovers a rival historian is presenting on her very topic at a prominent Venetian university she takes the opportunity to play chaperone to the 14 year old student of a friend in order to attend. Her story is mingled with the tale of Alessandra Rossetti herself. We learn her story as Claire's research progresses.

The story itself was gripping and engaging, although incredibly formulaic. The writing brought nothing new to the genre of historical fiction, and followed a linear narrative that failed to surprise. Many of the plot twists were contrived to the point of being unbelievable, and yet somehow still managed to be predictable.

The historical portions of the novel where descriptive and well researched. The same however could not be said of her modern context. All her modern characters were awful cliches. Each person in the modern context was nothing but representatives of the stereotypes of the countries from which they hailed. I felt that very little thought went into rounding them out as characters, in fact most of them weren't even likable.

Where the author loses most credibility is in her protagonist, Claire Donovan. I don't think a more bland character could ever have graced our pages. She lacks personality and flair. She is never adequately described, and yet we are meant to believe her beautiful. Frankly the fact that she is an academic who has never visited the city she is writing a dissertation on defies belief. Not only has she never visited Venice, but she also reads abridged and translated versions of her most important texts and expects to have credibility in the academic world. Quite frankly, for such an otherwise well-researched book, Phillips completely fails to write about the academic world in a believable, or even realistic fashion.

This aside however, it was a joy to read the historical portions of the novel. Phillips describes the sites and sounds of Venice in such a way as to make you feel part of the history. Her historical characters are accessible, and properly motivated, making them believable and sympathetic.

Ultimately this book is an enjoyable read. It's entertaining and fast paced, although rather superficial and contrived at times. It's worth picking up and reading for the entertainment, but it is certainly not a brilliant work of fiction.

3/5.

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