In 1618, Spain was preparing to launch a surprise invasion of Venice. The plan was thwarted only because Alessandra Rossetti, a famed courtesan of the city, wrote a letter to the governing council exposing the plot. Afterward, the young woman disappears from history.
Claire Donovan has spent two years researching this event for her doctoral dissertation. Why would Alessandra risk her life and those of her clients to save her city? What happened to her after she wrote the famous "Rossetti letter"? Claire is hoping to answer these questions and thus start her academic career as the expert in the so-called Spanish Conspiracy. One big problem is that she can't afford to travel from her home on Cape Cod to Venice to study the historical records firsthand.
To make matters worse, Claire learns that a history professor from Cambridge, Andrea Kent, is planning to present a paper at a Venice conference on the very topic of the Spanish Conspiracy. If Claire's dissertation is scooped, her degree and career will be jeopardy. There is only one way she can get to Venice: by taking fourteen-year-old Gwen Fry along with her. Thirty-something Claire thinks, "How hard could it be to watch Gwen while attending the lectures and doing research?" It's obvious that Claire has not spent much time around teenagers.
Once in Venice, Claire attends "Andrea's" lecture and learns two important facts: Andrea is really Andrew, and Andrew thinks the Spanish Conspiracy is a hoax.
The Rossetti Letter is almost two novels in one. The historical aspects center around the fictional Alessandra Rossetti and her transformation from well-off merchant's daughter to orphan to high-class courtesan. Her story introduces us to 1617–1618 Venice, its foods, its sights and sounds, and its politics. The contemporary aspects focus on Claire Donovan as she races to save her academic future while finally learning to open herself up to others after her painful divorce.
The two faces of the novel work well. Although Alessandra's story could have stood on its own as historical fiction, it is interesting to see the difference between the "realities" of her life and what is available four hundred years later for Claire to study. Further, it is fun to follow Claire's discoveries; we groan when she skips over important information and are relieved when she gets things right.
The historical chapters are well conceived with a good balance of fact and fiction. The plot is nicely paced, and it is easy to get caught up in Alessandra's world. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to remember all the political players, but Phillips gives us a list of the characters, and a quick glance is all that's needed to clear any confusion.
Claire's story is a little less gripping, with maybe a few too many coincidences. The evolving relationship between Claire and Gwen is entertaining, and Claire's foibles while adapting to Venice provide a nice break. In the end, however, Claire is someone to root for: The trip to Venice not only helps Claire understand the Spanish Conspiracy and Alessandra's fate but also helps her find the way to self-discovery.
The novel ends with a author's note that tells us which characters and events were based on fact and which were conceived for the novel. Phillips also lists her major sources.
The Rossetti Letter is the first in the Claire Donovan novels. I already have the second book, The Devlin Diary, and can't wait to follow Claire as she conducts research into 1672 London.
The novel has it's own website, The Rossetti Letter, where you can learn more about the author and the book.
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2008
Challenges: 999, 100+