School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up—Born into an aristocratic family in 16th-century Venice, 16-year-old Laura della Scala should have been living a glamorous life of balls and dinner parties. Instead, she was sold to a convent. As the second daughter in a family on the brink of financial ruin, she was sent away so that her older sister, Beatrice, could have a large enough dowry to marry well. Laura despairs at being away from her sister, so when she unexpectedly gets sent back home, she is elated. She is devastated to learn the reason: her sister has drowned, and her money-hungry father is forcing her to marry Beatrice's wealthy fiancé. Laura meets Vincenzo, who is more than 30 years her senior and an unpleasant man who leers at her youthful beauty. She is desperate to save herself when she is approached by a secret society called the Segreta, that offers a way out of the marriage in exchange for Venice's most powerful currency: a secret. Laura realizes that she does possess just such information, but she is unsure if she can trust this group. To further complicate her life, she meets a lowly painter with whom she forms an instant bond, yet she knows that they could never be together due to their class differences. All the while, Laura suspects that Beatrice's drowning was no accident. Secrets, mysteries, and twists and turns appear throughout this riveting story. It will appeal to mature readers who are willing and able keep up with the many revelations. Fans of Tracy Chevalier's The Girl with the Pearl Earring (Plume, 1999) will enjoy it.—Tara Kehoe, Plainsboro Public Library, NJ
From the Publisher
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2012:
"Told in the first person, present tense from Laura’s perspective and set amid glittering ballrooms and dark canals, this richly atmospheric thriller stars a bold heroine who tackles murder, betrayal and revenge with contemporary gusto. Enticing, exciting fare."
VOYA, February 2012:
"Determined to unravel the truth behind her sister’s untimely death, the beautiful young heroine quickly discovers danger and intrigue involving arranged marriages, family feuds, political power plays, clandestine meetings, and a secret society of powerful women...The author is adept at portraying action scenes, and the story moves rapidly."
VOYA - Lynne Farrell Stover
Feisty sixteen-year-old Laura della Scala, isolated in a convent where her self-centered father callously sent her when she was twelve years old, is thrilled when informed that she is going home. Upon arrival, a heartbroken Laura discovers that the mysterious drowning of her beloved sister, Beatrice, is the reason she was summoned. Determined to unravel the truth behind her sister's untimely death, the beautiful young heroine quickly discovers danger and intrigue involving arranged marriages, family feuds, political power plays, clandestine meetings, and a secret society of powerful women. To complicate matters, she finds herself attracted to a handsome young man who may be a gifted artist but whose questionable social status prevents the prospect of a romantic relationship. Set in Venice during the height of the Italian Renaissance, this work of historical fiction suffers from abundant anachronisms, stereotypical characters, and a predicable plot. Laura's narration seems far too contemporary to be authentic for the time period. (In sixteenth-century Italy, would a wealthy young female have so much freedom, effortlessly master complicated dance steps, or independently slip out of a multilayered evening gown?) The author is adept at portraying action scenes, and the story moves rapidly. The revelation of various secrets and schemes may be easily foreseen by most readers; however, validation in discovering that accurate deductions were made can prove to be gratifying. Reviewer: Lynne Farrell Stover
Sixteen-year-old Laura della Scala becomes dangerously embroiled in the secrets, scandal and political intrigue of 16th-century upper-class Venice as she seeks to unravel the mystery surrounding her sister's unexpected death. Summoned home from the convent where she's lived for five years, Laura discovers her beloved sister Beatrice has drowned, and her father expects her to marry Beatrice's wealthy fiancé, Vincenzo. Still grieving for Beatrice, Laura's pulled into the gossip and rivalries of Venetian society, in which everyone is "part of a scheme or a plot." When Laura realizes her future husband is elderly, cruel and lecherous, she feels powerless to disobey her father. Desperate to avoid marrying Vincenzo, Laura betrays a confidence to join the Segreta, a powerful secret society of masked women who arrange for Vincenzo's disgrace and exile. Saved from the marriage, Laura feels indebted to the Segreta, but she also suspects they may be involved in her sister's death. As she searches for Beatrice's murderer, Laura falls in love with a penniless young artist with his own volatile secret guaranteed to rock Venetian society. Told in the first person, present tense from Laura's perspective and set amid glittering ballrooms and dark canals, this richly atmospheric thriller stars a bold heroine who tackles murder, betrayal and revenge with contemporary gusto. Enticing, exciting fare. (Historical fiction. 12 & up)
Read an Excerpt
None of us is known by our real name in here. Almost as soon as you arrive, you're christened all over again: La Grossa, La Cadavara, La Lunatica, La Trista, La Puera, La Pungenta--Fat, Deathly, Mad, Sad, Fearful and Stinky. Inside the walls of the convent, sneering adjectives are transformed, sooner or later, into names.
They call me La Muta--The Silent One. It isn't that I don't have plenty to say, it's just that most of the time I keep things to myself. Daughters learn this early. Second daughters sooner.
The Abbess used to tell me that she could see something feral in my soul--that there was something of the animal about me. A dog, perhaps, or maybe a rat. The creatures that slip into the convent at night in search of chicken bones and rotting food. It's something that she's determined to stamp out.
My life, which once belonged to my father, now belongs to her. I am awake before two for prayers and then again at five, to go and sing perfect harmonies as the Venetian sun rises behind the grilles and the bars, dancing on the marble and gold in the chapel.
The Abbess controls all the correspondence coming in and going out. Sometimes she withholds the letters from my sister Beatrice and I can't read them. Tell me your news, I beg Beatrice in writing. When will you marry Vincenzo? Does he make you happy? None of my questions can be asked without undergoing the prudish scrutiny of the Abbess. To a suspicious mind, alert to all possible evils, any of my words could somehow appear saturated with sin.
"I see everything," the Abbess tells me. "I know what is in your mind."
I used to believe her. I used to think that perhaps she really did have the power to see my secret longings leaking like olive oil from the press. Certainly, I've seen her holding our letters out in front of her by the corners as if there's a danger they'll smear her cowl or habit. As if they're greasy, grubby things.
Some of Beatrice's letters reach me. I hide them under a wooden floorboard with my own ring and with a silk-ribboned lock of her hair. Late at night, when Annalena is snoring and shifting under her sheets, I take my sister's folded ink-filled paper treasures and I read them again and again. Each of her letters carries something from the outside world, smuggling it inside these walls that separate us. Through nothing but an accident of birth, she remains free, while I languish.
Annalena is my conversa, my lay sister, my servant nun, and she teases me for smiling in my sleep. She says my eyelids flutter and she wonders what worlds I'm traveling to in the dark.
In my dreams I'm a child again. Beatrice and I are running down to the Lido for treats from Paulina's grandmother. Paulina--my friend without a father. It always saddened me that her papa had died when he was young, but now I wonder whether she might actually have been blessed, living as she did, alone with her mother. Her grandmama shrouded her body in black clothes, and the skin on her face was hard and grooved like a walnut.
"The little princesses," she would call us. And she would lisp, "Shhh!" and say "Don't tell your papa you were here." And as she looked at our faces she would gasp, "Oh, what husbands you'll have! What riches! How many men will long to touch your skin and to comb your hair with their fingers!"
She had a bakery, and in the summer, when she couldn't bear the heat of the ovens, she would let them cool down and make nothing but meringues. She was famous for them. The recipe was known only to her, given to her by her own mother and her mother's mother before her. Sospiri di monaca. That's what they were called. "The sighs of nuns." Many recipes share this poignant name, but none have ever tasted like the meringues of Paulina's grandmother.
On my seventh birthday, Paulina had taken me by the hand and we had run sweating and serious to her grandmother's bakery, where we both stood silently, looking at the wizened woman. "Grandmama," she had said eventually. "Laura's seven years old today."
"Yes, it's true."
With fingers bent and twisted and brown, like twigs on an old tree, she put seven "sighs" in a little basket and handed it to me. I took a meringue and I bit into it. Brittle at first, and then soft, slowly giving up its flavors of golden sugar from the East, roasted hazelnuts from the South and the zest of Tuscan lemons. I closed my eyes. The sigh that came out of my mouth was hot on my hand.
"Oh, sweetheart!" The old woman grinned. "May all the pleasures in your life be so rapturous and so easy to make."