on 10 July 2013
I wanted to read this book because it was NOT a Brunetti novel (all of which I love in varying degrees) and felt I needed a change. I also love Venice, mysteries, Baroque music and historical research, and thought that all four combined in one book would make a fascinating story. I was so wrong.
I didn't try and compare it to Ms Leon's previous books, but I did find it incredibly hard to read more than a few pages without setting it aside and going off to do something less laborious. Generally I read a novel quickly, especially one that grabs my attention, and wouldn't normally bother with one that I found such hard going but, respecting Ms Leon's talent for springing surprises, I persisted nibbling away. The trouble is that, three weeks on, I am still gnawing on what is truly a dreary meal of more bones than meat, waiting for something to happen and, oddly, not caring if it does....
I've always thought it must be difficult for established authors famous for a particular series character or genre, to break out of the mould and write something different. What should they do? Hope their fans will stay with them even though the book is different? Or do they branch out under another name and hope the book will stand on its own and gain them a following?
Ruth Rendell wrote as Barbara Vine and did well with her stand alone thrillers after her success with the Wexford series; Agatha Christie wrote novels under the pen name of Mary Westmacott and did not do as well; P D James wrote a Jane Austen spin off under her usual name with mixed results. In the case of Donna Leon she has given her fans - and maybe new readers as well - something different from her hugely successful Guido Brunetti series in The Jewels of Paradise.
Here is Venice again in all her glory, corruption and Machiavellian complexity. It is Caterina Pelligrini's home city. She is a young musicologist and has been offered a job she cannot resist as she is feeling homesick for La Serenissima. Perhaps because she is homesick she doesn't ask as many questions as she should have done about the job itself.
She is tasked with examining all the documents in two locked trunks under strict conditions. Before she accepts the job she does not know who the trunks belonged to just that the whole thing is surrounded by secrecy. She has been told the former owner of the trunks comes within her field of expertise which is baroque composers and music.
The writing is subtle and understated and recognisably Leon's style and Venice is Brunetti's Venice. Caterina herself could easily be someone Brunetti encountered in the course of his work. He would remember her if they had met. The plot is slight - but many of the Brunetti plots are slight if stripped to their essentials.
The mystery to be unravelled is why Caterina has been given the job and why there is a job to do in the first place. I enjoyed the historical background to the composer Agostino Steffani which Caterina has to investigate. I also enjoyed the subtle, elliptical conversations which Leon does so well.
As Venetian life and society are never straightforward both the reader and Caterina herself have to unravel what is going on and work out who she can trust and who is her enemy. I enjoyed the glimpses the reader gets into Caterina's family and her four sisters all of whom I could bear to know more about.
If you enjoy the Brunetti series for its characters and its subtleties and its hugely successful portrait of Venice then you will also enjoy this novel. If you enjoy the Brunetti series because of the crimes investigated then you may be disappointed by this book. I loved it and I think the way to enjoy it is to start off reading it without comparing it with Leon's previous books if you can. There are similar ingredients but they are combined in different ways to produce what - to me - is an equally pleasing, but different result.
on 6 April 2014
You now know all you need to know to skip to chapter 7. The remainder of this pretentious novel is not more interesting, and the denouement seemed to be merely a way for the author to bring the tedium to an end.
I am a long-term fan of Donna Leon but I have never thought she was really good at plot. Plot is completely missing here but, unlike many of her other novels, there is also nothing else to carry the reader forward. It is hard to believe that she had any critical input before publishing this, what?, 'novel' would be too generous. What was her editor doing?
For Commissario Brunetti fans, it's almost heresy for Donna Leon to write a book about anyone else. In "The Jewels of Paradise," Ms Leon has done just that, braving the (already) eddying waters, for sure. She's left the Commissario to enjoy a nice dinner with his family, while she (Leon) takes a break, after some 20 previous (and excellent) Brunettis.
In this new one, we find Caterina Pellegrini, the learned (but not police) scholar who is caught up in a rather intriguing scenario: two locked trunks with "promises" of great treasure--treasure involving, it seems, the whole concept of baroque music. For classical music lovers, this is a waltz right across the ball room; for those readers who know less about this musical era, then, of course, the book comes across as terribly erudite, even boring--indeed, Leon seems to know this but has no problem changing keys, time signatures, and tonal integrity. Let's respect her for that--she's an incredibly intelligent person regardless.
What is still evident is Leon's excellent style of writing, modern, no-nonsense plot development, character portrayal, and standard structure. I laid aside my intense fondness for Signor Brunetti and his family and colleagues and embraced a new approach (yet at the same time, hoping that Leon isn't going to stop the Brunetti series, for, after all, he's not entirely cleaned up Venezian corruption/politics/and socially significant issues. He has miles to go before he sleeps.).
All this "defense of the book" said, and aside, I'm not disappointed in "The Jewels of Paradise." My knowledge of baroque music, while adequate, was enhanced--one CAN learn a new thing or two if one wishes. So, good work, Ms Leon. Don't stop writing. Please.
Finally, coincidentally, Cecilia Bartoli (also an acquaintance of Leon's) has just transported us "into the baroque era, performing music composed by the mysterious and legendary Steffani." Readers of Leon's new book will find this particularly relevant, owing to the "influence" Steffani has in it! Ms Bartoli also does another incredible job of putting those notes to a CD! It's a suitable companion for the book--what voices both Leon and Bartoli have!
on 6 December 2012
I felt slightly 'betrayed' by this novel in that it did not live up to expectations. Having read the blurb I thought it had a fanastic potential for mystery, intrigue and scholarly skulduggery. As it turned out I have to admit to becoming just a trifle bored. I respect Donna Leon, adore Venice, am familiar with the mechanics of literaryy/historical research and have a particular penchant for Baroque music. "Just up my street," I thought. It wasn't. Patiently and indulgently I waited for an excitement, a frisson - something one could really get one's teeth into. Alas, nothing emerged: the stalker proved a limp red herring, the possible love interst - the suave lawyer - melted vaguely into obscure shadows, the villains were ill-defined, and the subject of Caterina's painstaking research proved ultimately of little tangible interest. Much of Caterina's scholarly labours were punctuated by not very inspiring meals; and each time she went out to a bistro or bar one assumed that "something" would happen when she returned to her academic pursuits. Nothing did - either intellectually or physically. It is always a pleasure to read about Venice, especially by one as knowledgeable as Donna Leon - hence the three stars. However, on the whole I have to say: tremendous possibilities but a bit of a damp squib . . . There are other of this author's books both more gripping and,indeed, more subtle and edgy.
on 30 September 2013
I admit I only took the book because I believed it was another Brunetti story, wondering why the introduction was so long, slow and boring (circa one third of the book) and when Brunetti would finally appear. It happened to be a sugar-coated documentary (with true factual data) about a composer I have heard of. Unbelievable amount of unnecessary detail (full account of the most uninteresting actions done by the protagonist - how exactly she brushes her teeth, how she clears her work desk, what she snacks on) that certainly adds up more pages and thus more pay for the writer but can be highly irritating to the reader as it does not bring in anything towards creating better literary characters. True, there is lot's of detail in the Brunetti books but there it is not as striking due to the presence of some suspense, deductive activity and proper mystery. I kept on reading supported by the hope that things might get more interesting which they did, albeit only in the very last 10 pages. Shallow characters, simplistic plot, and yes, a very ridiculous and silly ending: the author must go through the trouble of doing better research! "Yes" in Romanian is the same as in Russian, "da", and this clumsily added character of a Romanian musicologist, given his age (around 40?) must have already known it :)
on 7 October 2013
I continued reading this book because I expected it to improve: it didn't.There is an over-long lead up to arrival in Venice, another protracted lead up to the opening of 'the chests' followed by a repetitive, day-by-day account of reading papers from chests and research in a library. Occasionally the researcher breaks off for 'two sandwiches and a glass of water ... a panino and a glass of water', a family meal and a couple of possibly romantic dinner dates with the lawyer. A quote from The Spectator begins 'All the ingredients of a zippy historical mystery' and 'ingredients' is right. We have a mysterious pair of cousins and their mysterious chests, their mysterious lawyer, a mysterious composer/bishop, etc., etc, We also have some of the ingredients that add interest to the Brunetti novels: references to close family, use of friends to help with access to information, and a little about Venetian life. None of this helps, because the details are dull and the characters never come to life. The reader is led through every boring detail at snail's pace and then the 'surprise' ending is disposed of in five pages, while the researcher's new plan for her future ends the book in two short paragraphs. A sad procession of missed opportunities to write an interesting and genuinely intriguing novel.
on 20 February 2013
I have read and loved all the previous Donna Leon books featuring Commisario Brunetti. I was a little nervous as this was not a Brunetti novel and I was right to be. I found it really slow, no real story and none of the usual detail relating to the sights, sounds and life of Venice.
I would go so far as to say that NOTHING happened until the last few pages when the mystery of the chests were finally revealed.
The characters were dull, I struggled to finish it and I have to say I was quite relieved when I did!
I really wanted to like it. I look forward to Donna Leon novels with great anticipation but this one was almost as if it were by a different writer.
It is hard when you have grown to love a specific character to accept something new, but I sincerely hope we go back to Brunetti and once again enjoy some vivid descriptions of the most beautiful city in the world and a good mystery story as well!
on 13 November 2012
On the plus side, this book is written in Donna Leon's typically elegant prose and has her characteristically evocative descriptions of Venetian life. The musical history is also well done, although there is perhaps too much reiteration of some of the detail.
The less satisfactory feature is the development of the modern story which frames the historical narrative. Some aspects, such as the conveniently situated sister and the Roumanian deus ex machina, seem rather contrived and there are various points where it seems as if the plot is about to take an interesting turn but which then fizzle out. The denoument feels rather rushed and a number of loose ends are left trailing (for example, without giving away the ending, the role and motivation of the lawyer are largely unexplained and the explanation which it appears one is supposed to infer does not make a great deal of sense, since it would seem that he could have achieved his objectives much more straightforwardly).
In summary it feels as if Donna Leon's real interest was in the baroque story and she became rather bored with the device of the modern framing. It makes one wonder if she would not have written a better historical novel based on Steffani's exploits, which appear sufficiently colourful and varied to provide ample material for the plot of such a novel.
on 11 January 2013
I was given this book as a Christmas present. I love Donna Leon's Brunetti books and very much admire her writing, characters and the Venice background to her books. I'm afraid I really couldn't get into this one though. I didn't find the characters nearly as interesting and the plot didn't really engage me much.