A debut novel jumping between the saucy adventures of a 17th-century courtesan and the 21st-century academic researching her life.
Claire Donovan is almost finished with her dissertation on Alessandra Rossetti when she learns a Cambridge professor is about to challenge her entire thesis at an Italian conference. A bit of luck comes through when the economically strapped Claire gets a free trip to Venice—all she has to do is chaperone 14-year-old Gwen while the girl’s father honeymoons in France. Claire hopes to learn what the scholar has planned and then beat him to publishing. It sounds reasonable stateside, but that’s before Claire lands in magical Venice, where beautiful men and sparkling canals blur her focus. Not to mention escorting a girl with purple hair and an attitude, far different from the teenager Claire has spent the last two years of her life researching. Alessandra Rossetti is not yet 18 when her father and brother (and their fortune) are lost at sea. She briefly becomes the mistress of her financial advisor, but when he dies, Alessandra finds herself penniless. Without dowry or virginity, marriage prospects are slim, leaving the only other alternative—the convent. Or is it? The premier courtesan of Venice, La Celestia, accepts Alessandra as a protégé, and Alessandra takes to a life of prostitution. But soon political power plays involve her in ways that endanger her life. The fictional plot turns on a bit of history—the Spanish controlled most of Italy at the time, with the exception of Venice, which they had hoped to invade. In this telling, Venice can thank its sovereignty to Alessandra. Both Claire and Alessandra have more adventure than they bargained for (Claire is courted by a gorgeous architect, then nearly thrown in jail over a misunderstanding), but by the end, it will come as little surprise that things end well for our heroines. The dialogue is often exposition-heavy and the coincidences are a bit too much, but Phillips’s depiction of lonely Claire blossoming in Venice is nicely told.
A fairly romanticized view of history, yet an amiable first effort sure to appeal to the many fans of the genre.