The Venice Sketchbook
Between my inclination to read almost any book that’s about an artist and my steadfast desire to visit Venice someday, I could hardly resist a book with this title. I have read books by Rhys Bowen before (mostly from her Molly Murphy mysteries) and found them pleasant and entertaining without being particularly compelling; this one, while not written to a formula as is the mystery series, had a little more going for it, but its content didn’t quite meet its potential.
This is historical fiction, which is Ms. Bowen’s specialty, but the historical context suffered a bit by her putting the personal stories first and not sufficiently researching some of her background material, which surprised me. And while she tries to set a vibrant scene in Venice, some of her prose felt like generic descriptions from not very original guidebooks.
Part of the problem with the scene-setting may be that both of her characters are so melancholy most of the time that anything they describe carries a pall of personal gloom with it. The story is told from two perspectives—Juliet’s primarily from the war years (1938-45), and Caroline’s from 2001. Juliet Browning was an aspiring artist who attended art school for one year in her youth and then had to drop out and get a job to support the family when her father lost everything on the Stock Exchange in 1928. The story revolves around three separate trips that Juliet makes to Venice: One, when she is just out of school, a cultural pilgrimage chaperoned by her Aunt Hortensia; one, 10 years later, when she is chaperone herself to a group of girls from the school at which she is the art mistress; and a third a year after that, when she is granted a bursary through her school to spend a year in Venice studying at the Art Academie.
In the contemporary story, Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie (Juliet) dies and leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a few final words that include a prompt to go to Venice. Caroline’s son is in New York City with his father, too traumatized (according to his dad, anyway) to fly back to England after the events of 9/11; Caroline decides to take her mind off her troubles by making a pilgrimage to Venice to scatter Juliet’s ashes in the city she loved. She also hopes to find out exactly what happened to Juliet there more than 60 years ago. Until Lettie passed away, Caroline assumed that she had been the same stolid, pleasant spinster her whole life, but perhaps there is a past there.
The plot line hinges on romance: On her first trip to Venice, Juliet meets Leonardo da Rossi, the attractive and charismatic son of one of the ruling families of Venice, and they have a “moment” that is repeated on her second visit. But Leo is destined to marry to suit his family’s business interests, and by the time Juliet returns in 1939, he has been married for some time to Bianca.
Connections that Caroline makes once in Venice lead (somewhat too fortuitously) to her own encounter with a descendent of Leo’s, and with some assistance from and discussion with him, Caroline begins to put together a timeline and a story of her aunt’s days in Venice. A lot of the revelations about Juliet come from a diary that she kept and Caroline discovers, although gaps in it lead to some confusion and false leads until additional clues are acquired. It’s all rather serendipitous.
As I said at the beginning, although this is supposedly a romance about an artist and a beautiful city that steals her heart, the melancholy nature of both the personal and global stories bogs it down. Juliet is first frustrated by the truncated nature of her visit to Venice with her strict aunt; then she is wistful as she conducts her young art school charges around the city, because they don’t seem to appreciate what she would have given anything to experience in their places; and when she finally arrives to stay for a year, living there and studying art, although she does make some friends and have some positive experiences, she is self-conscious about being so much older than the other art students, and she is depressed by the fact that Leo da Rossi is off limits.
Overlaid on Juliet’s story is, of course, the progress of World War II as it relates to Italy and specifically to Venice, and it begins as a constant menace that fails over and over to turn into something concrete, a hovering cloud that never actually rains (so the narrative seems like it contains a lot of false alarms); and then when things finally change for the worse, the story is so relentlessly focused on how it is affecting Juliet and her immediate circle that it’s hard to get an idea of the actual historical facts. I won’t go so far as to say it’s clichéd, but it’s a bit one-dimensional and shallow.
Meanwhile, Caroline is bitter that her husband has left her (after she has supported his career at the expense of hers) to hook up with a famous musician and make good with his fashion designs. She reluctantly agrees to joint custody with Josh of their son, Teddy, six, who stays with her in England during the school year and goes to his father in New York City for the summer and winter holidays. She complains a fair bit about all of it, but doesn’t take any action (like getting a lawyer), and then the outside world intrudes as the planes crash into the World Trade Center, separating her from her son for an extended period. Her impulse is to fly to New York as soon as that becomes possible and take Teddy back, but instead she embarks on this quest to Venice, with all of this hanging over her head.
It’s not all depression and despair—there are fun and funny moments here and there, and some genuine feelings are expressed—but it’s not a happy story, not a traditional romance with a HEA, but also not an achievement for historical fiction. I think that if the background events had been more compellingly and immediately presented, it would have been a better book. I’m not panning it, but it wasn’t a five-star read for me; maybe a three.