Monday, April 12, 2021

Books: "The Venice Sketchbook" By Rhys Bowen


The Venice Sketchbook

By Rhys Bowen

Lake Union Publishing; hardcover, $24.95; paperback, $14.95; ebook, $5.99; available Tuesday, April 13th 

Rhys Bowen is the New York Times bestselling author of over forty novels, including Above the Bay of Angels, The Victory Garden, The Tuscan Child, and the World War II-based In Farleigh Field, which won the Macavity and Left Coast Crime Awards for Best Historical Mystery Novel and the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery. 

In The Venice Sketchbook - a compelling novel of brief encounters and lasting romance - love and secrets collide in that vintage romantic Italian city.

Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a final whisper...Venice. Caroline's quest is to scatter Juliet "Lettie" Browning's ashes in the city she loved and to unlock the mysteries stored away for more than sixty years.

Juliet Browning, an art teacher, arrived in Venice in 1938, after being there a decade earlier. To her students, the city is a wealth of history, art, and beauty, while for Juliet, it's poignant memories and a chance to reconnect with Leonardo Da Rossi, the man she loves whose future is already determined by his noble family. 

However star-crossed their romance is, nothing can come between them - until the threat of war closes in on Venice and they are forced to fight, survive, and protect a secret that will bind them forever.

Lettie's life of impossible love, loss and courage unfolds key by key, and it's one that Caroline can now make right again as she starts her own journey of self-discovery. The story is told in alternating voices, with Juliet in 1938 and Caroline in 2001 in Britain.

In this excerpt, Juliet writes of returning to the romantic city: 

"Juliet, Venice, 1938. 

I never thought I'd have the chance to visit Venice again after the events of the last ten years, but here I am, back in the beloved city. It seems like a miracle. I arrived a few hours ago, together with Miss Frobisher and twelve girls from Anderley House School, where I teach. The train journey was hot and crowded, and on arrival in Venice we had to run the gamut of men trying to snatch out bags and drag them into gondolas as we emerged from the station, just as they had done ten years previously when I came here with Aunt Hortensia. 

'Oh, Miss Browning, this is absolutely ghastly, isn't it?' miss Frobisher wailed, grabbing on to my arm. 'It's just too, too ghastly. Why on earth didn't we take the girls to Paris instead? The French are so much more civilized than this mob of uncouth rabble. Likely as not, we'll be murdered in our beds, if we don't die of heatstroke before we find the convent.'

I tried to reassure her and was relieved when we found that the convent where we would be staying was one of the few places in Venice with not navigable canal near it. Instead we would have to walk over the Grand Canal by the Ponte degli Scalzi, a stone bridge of many steps, to the district of Santa Croce, cross another canal by a smaller, steeper bridge and then wind our way through narrow alleys. They all seemed to have different names at each corner, made even more frustrating when carrying our suitcases. It was hot and muggy, and Miss Frobisher had brought a large leather suitcase she could hardly lift. I felt sorry for her but wasn't about to offer to carry it.

'Are we nearly there, miss?' another chimed in. 'We're all dying of thirst.'

That had been another inconvenience for us. The train we had taken had no dining car. This was all right as we had boarded in Calais in the evening and still had the sandwiches we had brought with us. But finding there was no hot drink to be had in the morning was a shock. We had to change trains in Milan and had hoped to find a drink in the station, but our train had come in late and we had to sprint between platforms, flinging ourselves on board at the last minute. My mouth felt like sandpaper, and I knew what the girls must be going through. 

'This is an awful place.' Miss Frobisher gasped out the words as she staggered on, her face bright, beetroot red. She was a large woman and not suited to the heat. 'What on earth made you suggest it, Miss Browning?'

'We are on a cultural trip, Miss Frobisher,' I replied, trying to sound patient and optimistic. 'Venice has such a brilliant collection of paintings and sculptures, and the buildings themselves are all works of art. The girls will find plenty to sketch and learn a lot of history.' I changed my suitcase to the other hand, trying not to show that I, too, was nearing exhaustion. 'I was here myself when I was eighteen, and I was entranced by the city.'

'I can't say I've noticed anything historic or noteworthy yet,' Miss Frobisher snapped. 'A nasty, dirty train station, a mob of evil men who all smelled bad and tried to manhandle me. And did you see all those soldiers and those men in black shirts at the station? Mussolini's thugs. I've read about them. Just as bad as Hitler.' She dropped her suitcase to the cobblestones, wiped off her hands on her shirt, then hefted it again. At least we could have stayed in a proper hotel and not a heathen Roman Catholic establishment.'

'Not my choice, Miss Frobisher,' I said, my patience now wearing rather thin. 'It was the school's board of directors.' As you know, they were a little unsure about the wisdom of this venture. Reverend Cronin felt that the parents would feel more secure knowing their daughters were safely locked up for the night in a convent.'

'We will be fed bread and water, miss?' Sheila Barber, a particularly annoying girl, demanded. 'I've read about convents. They make nuns beat themselves with whips and pray twenty times a day and get up at four in the morning?'

'Not this one, I can assure you, Sheila,' I replied. 'This order is an order of hospitality. That is what they do - host pilgrims or visitors like ourselves. I have been assured it is most welcoming.'

We trudged on. In truth, I was beginning to feel as disillusioned and worried as they were. When a group of parents had approached the school, suggesting that their daughters needed exposure to the great art of the Continent before the political situation deteriorated even further, and one of them had particularly mentioned Venice, it had been more than I could resist. An art mistress, I was an obvious choice to lead such an expedition. Also I am the only teacher on the staff under fifty. The rest are spinsters who were at the right age for marriage around the time of the Great War, thus they had little chance of ever finding a husband after a whole generation of young men had been wiped out. It seemed that most of them were reluctant to travel to Europe at such an unsettled time. Finally Miss Frobisher, the history mistress, was persuaded to go with us. We were to spend the first few days in Venice and then on to Florence."


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