The year is 2012 and Valentina, a photographer, is living in Milan with her lover Theo. Although she and Theo have been together for a year now, Valentina can't commit to the relationship. While Theo clearly wants to take things with Valentina further and would like to introduce her to his parents, she retreats into herself, behind carefully constructed walls as soon as he suggests it. Valentina doesn't believe in relationships. Having never known her father, who left her mother when she was still small and having witnessed her mother work her way through one affair after another, she has no faith in love and can't imagine spending her life with anyone. When Theo, shortly after making his shocking suggestion, has to leave on one of his mystery trips he is clearly frustrated with the woman he would like to be able to call his girlfriend. He does leave her with a present though; an album and a collection of old negatives. He doesn't give her an explanation about this gift, just tells her to have fun and leaves.
In Venice in 1924 Louise Brzezinska is deeply unhappy in her marriage to a cruel and violent husband. When she accidentally discovers that she has the power to charm men she creates a new and secret life for herself. As Bella she sets out on a path that will make her a celebrated courtesan. A path that will also lead her to the love of her life and the delights of passion.
Soon after Theo has left, Valentina is offered an intriguing photographic opportunity. She will be taking erotic pictures in a club catering for people who enjoy the less conventional side of sex. And as she starts her assignment Valentina slowly discovers new needs and feelings in herself. Slowly the photographer is opening herself up to the possibility that maybe a relationship with Theo is possible. If only she knew where he is, what the meaning behind the album and the old negatives is and why a policeman is looking for him. And will these newly emerging emotions come in time to save her relationship with this wonderful man, or will she find a way to alienate him forever? And what exactly is the connection between Valentina and Bella, apart from photography and their hairstyle?
I've been reading a lot of erotic fiction lately and I have to say this book came as a very pleasant surprise. Yes, it is definitely another erotic work, but it is so much more. The writing in this book is excellent, the characters are well developed and their story-lines are fascinating. This story is unrushed. Often in erotic fiction I have the feeling that the author feels obliged to put in a sex scene at regular intervals and ends up manipulating the story in order to fit them in. Not in this book. The more explicit scenes all make sense in the context of the story and Valentina's development. There are no sudden and drastic revelations for Valentina; lead by opportunity and curiosity she is discovering a world and feelings she wasn't aware off. But this takes time and, thankfully, the author takes all the necessary time.
That is not to say that there weren't one or two things I was less crazy about. For starters, I can't help feeling that the story didn't need the added story-line about the stolen art. I won't go so far as to say that it interfered with the rest of the story, but at the same time, I don't think the story would have lacked anything if it had been left out either.
I also found Valentina a hard character to warm to. She is very self-contained and reluctant to admit to emotions, never mind give in to them. At times she seemed so determined to undermine herself and her chance at happiness that I felt like slapping her. I found Bella much easier to like. She has as many reasons to distrust relationships as Valentina has and yet she is more than happy to give her heart to a man who loves her. I can't help wondering if that may because Valentina was an established character when the author agreed to write this trilogy, whereas Bella is (as far as I know) a completely original creation?
The character Valentina Rosselli was originally created by Italian Guido Crepax in an iconic graphic novel in the 1960 and has cult status in Italy to this day. Evie Blake is the pen name of author Noelle Harrison (Beatrice, A Small Part of Me, I Remember and The Adulteress) who was invited to write this trilogy about Valentina. From her earlier books it is clear that Noelle enjoys writing erotic scenes and I can't help feeling that she was more than happy to embrace this opportunity to indulge in that aspect of her writing.
Overall I have to say that I was very impressed with this book and happily surprised when I discovered it was actually written by one of my favourite authors. I can't wait to get my hands on the second book, if only to discover if Valentina will ever come to her senses.