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The Rossetti Letter

The Rossetti Letter

4.1 62
by Christi Phillips

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In this captivating debut, Christi Phillips blends fact and fiction, suspense and sensuality into a vibrant, richly imagined novel in which a modern historian uncovers a courtesan's secret role in a shocking conspiracy of seventeenth-century Venice.

Claire Donovan always dreamed of visiting Venice, though not as a chaperone for a surly teenager. But she can't


In this captivating debut, Christi Phillips blends fact and fiction, suspense and sensuality into a vibrant, richly imagined novel in which a modern historian uncovers a courtesan's secret role in a shocking conspiracy of seventeenth-century Venice.

Claire Donovan always dreamed of visiting Venice, though not as a chaperone for a surly teenager. But she can't pass up this chance to complete her Ph.D. thesis on Alessandra Rossetti, a mysterious courtesan who wrote a secret letter to the Venetian Council warning of a Spanish plot to overthrow the Venetian Republic in 1618. Claire views Alessandra as a heroine and harbors a secret hope that her findings will elevate Alessandra to a more prominent place in history. But an arrogant Cambridge professor is set to present a paper at a prestigious Venetian university denouncing Alessandra as a co-conspirator — a move that could destroy Claire's paper and career.

As Claire races to locate the documents that will reveal the courtesan's true motives, Alessandra's story comes to life with all the sensuality, political treachery, and violence of seventeenth-century Venice. Claire also falls under the city's spell. She is courted by a handsome Italian, matches wits with her academic adversary, bonds with her troubled young charge, and, amid the boundless beauty of Venice, recaptures the joy of living every moment....

Layering wit and warmth into her portraits of two very different yet equally dynamic heroines, Christi Phillips shifts effortlessly between past and present in a remarkable novel that is at once a love story, a mystery, and an intriguing historical drama. Filled with beautifully rendered details of one of the world's oldest and most magical cities, The Rossetti Letter marks Phillips's debut as a writer of extraordinary skill and grace.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Reading Christi Phillips's lush, beautifully written novel is like enjoying a sumptuous meal in the Venice it describes with such loving detail. You want to savor every moment."

— Ayelet Waldman, author of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits

"Christi Phillips's sexy and suspenseful novel makes you want to hop on the next flight to Venice, book in hand. Reading it is like a visit to that sensual city."

— Janis Cooke Newman, author of Mary

"Saucy...nicely told...An amiable first effort sure to appeal to many fans of the genre." — Kirkus

"With impeccable research into seventeenth-century Venetian politics...an intriguing literary suspense debut novel...an entertaining story with intrigue, espionage, and romance." — Booklist

Publishers Weekly
When the Venetian courtesan Alessandra Rossetti wrote a letter that exposed the 1618 Spanish Conspiracy, Venice was saved. Four hundred years later in Phillips's lovingly researched half-historical, half-contemporary debut, Claire Donovan, an American graduate student, struggles to finish her dissertation on the courtesan's brave act. Claire attends a Venice conference to check out the work of British superstar historian Andrew Kent, who sees Rossetti as nothing more than the pawn of very powerful men in a diplomatic double cross: once Andrew's work is published, his ideas could derail Claire's fledgling career. Phillips, developing parallel plots, unspools Alessandra's story directly to the reader in detail denied Claire and Andrew, who overcome their initial animosity to solve the greater mystery. Academic machinations and missing manuscripts soon add complications. Further, Claire has to deal with her difficult teenage charge, Gwendolyn Fy, and with Giancarlo Baldessari, a handsome and rich admirer. Andrew has to deal with his gorgeous harridan of an Italian girlfriend-and, inevitably, his growing attraction to Claire. Such a profusion of textual plots and characters spread out over past and present recalls A.S. Byatt's Possession, but Phillips, while not aiming as high, misses her mark. Despite a nicely detailed Venice, a clear affection for the main characters and extensive period touches, Phillips's ambitious debut founders long before its predictable happy ending. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Claire Donavan thought she had problems when she passed out at her first speaking engagement, but it was nothing compared to learning that someone was publishing a book on the same topic as her relatively obscure dissertation on the Spanish Conspiracy in 17th-century Venice. She has been researching the life of Alessandra Rossetti, a courtesan who wrote a letter of denunciation exposing the Spanish plot to overthrow the Venetian government. Phillips's first novel alternates between the 21st and 17th centuries, telling the stories of the two women and their independent struggles to do the right thing. Claire travels to a conference in Venice, where her competitor is speaking, and Alessandra tries to keep herself and her loved ones out of trouble as rumors of the conspiracy spread. Phillips's well-researched novel is more than a little bit thrilling to read. The alternate story lines, each including intrigue, adventure, and a touch of romance, are nicely woven together; the details are seamlessly blended. Recommended for all fiction collections.
—Anna M. Nelson

Kirkus Reviews
A debut novel jumping between the saucy adventures of a 17th-century courtesan and the 21st-century academic researching her life. Claire Donovan is almost finished with her dissertation on Alessandra Rossetti when she learns a Cambridge professor is about to challenge her entire thesis at an Italian conference. A bit of luck comes through when the economically strapped Claire gets a free trip to Venice-all she has to do is chaperone 14-year-old Gwen while the girl's father honeymoons in France. Claire hopes to learn what the scholar has planned and then beat him to publishing. It sounds reasonable stateside, but that's before Claire lands in magical Venice, where beautiful men and sparkling canals blur her focus. Not to mention escorting a girl with purple hair and an attitude, far different from the teenager Claire has spent the last two years of her life researching. Alessandra Rossetti is not yet 18 when her father and brother (and their fortune) are lost at sea. She briefly becomes the mistress of her financial advisor, but when he dies, Alessandra finds herself penniless. Without dowry or virginity, marriage prospects are slim, leaving the only other alternative-the convent. Or is it? The premier courtesan of Venice, La Celestia, accepts Alessandra as a protege, and Alessandra takes to a life of prostitution. But soon political power plays involve her in ways that endanger her life. The fictional plot turns on a bit of history-the Spanish controlled most of Italy at the time, with the exception of Venice, which they had hoped to invade. In this telling, Venice can thank its sovereignty to Alessandra. Both Claire and Alessandra have more adventure than they bargained for (Claire iscourted by a gorgeous architect, then nearly thrown in jail over a misunderstanding), but by the end, it will come as little surprise that things end well for our heroines. The dialogue is often exposition-heavy and the coincidences are a bit too much, but Phillips's depiction of lonely Claire blossoming in Venice is nicely told. A fairly romanticized view of history, yet an amiable first effort sure to appeal to the many fans of the genre. Agent: Mary Evans/Mary Evans Inc.

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Gallery Books
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Hanged Man3 March 1618

Her hands looked unnaturally pale in the moonlight. For a moment, Alessandra forgot the bitter wind that kicked up an icy spray off the lagoon, and regarded her hands as though they belonged to someone else: a conspicuous ridge of bone-white knuckle, with pallid veins that were faintly visible through milky flesh. As they approached the Ponte San Biagio, she realized how tense she was, how tightly she gripped the edge of the gondola. Calm yourself, she thought, and released her grasp. You must be calm. She reclined against the seat cushions, assuming a relaxed posture she did not feel, and the coarse fabric of her costume bunched uncomfortably against her back. She chose to ignore it. If Nico sees that you are uneasy, he will insist that you return home.

Her manservant steered them into the Rio dell' Arsenale, leaving behind the lagoon where they'd hugged the shore since leaving her house at the southeast end of the city. The canal was empty and quiet, devoid of movement and light, save for the silent passage of the gondola and an occasional torchlight that trembled in the black water. The houses along both sides were shuttered and dark. They would remain that way until morning, while the inhabitants celebrated elsewhere: in the Piazza, in the smaller public squares, in the palaces along the Grand Canal. The end of Carnival was only three days away. After weeks of celebration, the revelry had built to a frenzy, as in the tale of a bewitched princess who danced for days and nights without rest. When morning dawned on Ash Wednesday, fragile and silver fogged, all of Venice wouldfall into a limitless sleep, as if under an enchantment.

They turned into the Rio di San Martino, then into a narrow waterway that circled west toward the Piazzetta dei Leoncini. In their wake, small waves gently slapped against stone foundations smothered in clumps of thick, glistening moss. She could reach out and brush the damp stone with her fingertips if she desired, so close were the buildings, and she inhaled their familiar grotto scent with a kind of reverence. Traveling through Venice at night always filled her with a rising excitement, but tonight her anticipation was tinged with fear. Alessandra tried not to think about what waited for her at the end of her journey, which was quickly approaching.

Already she could hear strains of music. Then came an indeterminate cry -- of fear, passion, or laughter? -- that echoed off stone walls and was abruptly silenced, leaving once again the oar's rhythmic squeak and splash. Soon there appeared a harbinger of the celebration at the city's center: a single gondola with a red lantern at its bow glided slowly toward them. Seated within it were two velvet-breeched men wearing the masks of pagan gods, and two elegant courtesans with feathered headdresses that resembled exotic birds, whose ruby lips and bejeweled throats gleamed in the rosy light. As the gondola passed, these fantastic creatures turned to regard her with a languid curiosity; then one of the strange, hybrid women wet her rouged mouth with her tongue and reached out her hand in silent invitation.

Alessandra felt as if she were merely a spectator at a passing show. Then she and Nico were swallowed by the shadow of a bridge and disgorged again, and all at once they were enveloped by music and light and laughter, a riot of color and strange costume, as the crowds along Calle Canonica pressed into the Piazza. Nico halted the gondola and exchanged a wordless look with Alessandra before she stepped onto the fondamenta and rushed away.

The Piazza was bright with torchlight, alive with music and revelry, but she could not join the general high spirits; the sinister maw that waited for her in the dark courtyard of the Doge's Palace filled her with dread. The bocca di leone, the lion's mouth, was a special receptacle created by the Venetian government to receive letters of denunciation. Into this bronze plaque went accusations of theft, murder, or tax evasion -- the last a particularly heinous crime according to the Great Council, the Republic's ruling assembly of two thousand noblemen. Alessandra had never imagined, until recently, that she would ever avail herself of it. Behind the bocca di leone's grotesque, gaping mouth lurked every terror hidden within the depths of the palace, the prison, and the Republic itself; surely unleashing that terror was a fearsome act not to be done with indifference.

As she pushed her way through the crowds, she was aware of the letter tucked inside the small purse tied at her waist. It bore both her personal seal and her signature. The Great Council paid no heed to anonymous letters, to discourage using the bocca di leone as a way of striking at one's enemies. Soon the marquis and his coconspirators would know who had exposed their plan, and her life would be in danger. But how could she do other than what she had set out to do tonight? The Republic was in peril. It was her civic duty to place the letter in the lion's mouth, to set the wheels of justice in motion. If she failed, more lives than just her own would be lost.

Alessandra summoned her courage and moved toward the Porta della Carta, the dark archway that led to the palace courtyard, then abruptly stopped, startled by something that had caught at the edge of her vision.

Between the two great marble columns at the foot of the Piazzetta, a dead man hung limply against a background of starless sky. His limbs were broken, his face bloodied, his bruised flesh barely covered by dirty, tattered rags. Although he was suspended on a gibbet directly above the gaming tables that crowded the space between the two columns, not one of the many costumed revelers below took notice of him.

Stirred by a gust of wind, the hanged man turned slowly on the cord that had snapped his neck. Light from a bonfire below animated his blank, staring eyes; flickering shadows played across his mouth and turned his death's grimace into a grin. Alessandra stood transfixed, as it appeared that the hanged man was still alive. She imagined that he spoke to her, his warning delivered in a harsh whisper: It could be you at the end of this rope, if you do not deliver that letter...but here is the fate of the one you love if you do.

I am damned with the Devil's own choice, Alessandra thought, but as for the one I love...she looked again at the hanged man, and it was suddenly clear that all life had left him. Just a body at the end of a rope, no more, no less, not common, but not uncommon, either. She had seen hanged men before in this very place; she knew well they did not speak. She shook her head to rid herself of the apparition and turned away. The sooner she got on with her task and was away, the better.

As for the one she loved...well, he did not love her, did he? Still, her step was slow as she walked toward the Porta della Carta. The Devil's own choice, she thought, and slipped through the archway into the shadowed, silent courtyard.

Chapter One

"...by 1618, Venice was past the apogee of its empire," Claire Donovan said as she shuffled an index card to the bottom of the stack, resisting an urge to fan herself with it. The Harriot Historical Society meeting room felt stiflingly hot. From her position at the podium, Claire saw that her audience was also suffering from the unseasonably warm weather. Program notes doubled as fans, and handkerchiefs were dabbed at brows and throats.

"Although the Republic was still a major power, it was surrounded by enemies: the Turkish Empire, France, and, most notably, Spain, the richest and most powerful country in the western world, and the dominant force in Italy. Italy was not the united country we know today, but a disparate group of territorial states, many of them under Spanish control, ruled by a Spanish viceroy or governor. The Venetian Republic stood alone in its independence; along with its fabled wealth and beauty, this vulnerability only served to tantalize those determined to conquer her.

"The duke of Ossuna set his sights upon Venice soon after assuming the viceroyalty of Milan in 1616," she continued. "But he knew he could not take the Republic on his own. He enlisted the help of the Spanish ambassador, the marquis of Bedmar..." She paused, distracted, as a bead of perspiration slid down her neck and underneath her collar. God, she was hot. It didn't help that she'd dressed up for the occasion of her first public lecture, exchanging her usual T-shirt and khakis for a skirt, blazer, and blouse; or that her long, fawn-colored hair was hanging loose instead of tied back into a neat, and much cooler, braid. She glanced at her notes on the 1618 Spanish Conspiracy against Venice, trying to regain her place and her rhythm.

"The marquis of Bedmar," she began again, then stopped as she heard a soft, wheezing whisper from somewhere in the audience. It was followed by the creak of metal folding chairs, the rustle of bodies, a few dry, muffled coughs. They weren't exactly enraptured, Claire realized, feeling a sudden flush of self-consciousness. One instant her thoughts had been on her scribbled notes, the words in her mind, and the images she envisioned: seventeenth-century Venice, Alessandra Rossetti on her fateful trip to the bocca di leone. The next instant she was just someone standing in front of a small group of people she hardly knew, feeling much too hot and not quite sure of what she was doing.

This didn't bode well for her future success. If she couldn't give a captivating talk to the members of the Harriot Historical Society, how would she ever present her doctoral dissertation to her adviser, the notoriously caustic Claudius Hilliard, and the rest of the Harvard committee who would watch her with judgmental, silent stares?

She took a sip of water from the plastic cup on the podium and looked up from her index cards. Elroy Dugan was fast asleep, but the other audience members still seemed interested. They were all women, all well over seventy years old, and they all looked up at her with expressions of encouraging expectation. Maybe her lecture wasn't going quite as badly as she'd imagined.

Claire smiled at them and brushed the perspiration from her brow. "The marquis of Bedmar, Spanish ambassador to Venice..." she said, her voice trailing off. Odd. Her notes were blurry. Her ears suddenly seemed to be stuffed with cotton. Her legs felt shaky, her head woozy. She gripped the sides of the podium to steady herself.

In the front row, Mrs. Branford Biddle, the historical society's director, leaned forward, looking concerned.

"Venice...," Claire began once more, and wondered why Mrs. Biddle seemed to be lunging straight at her.

"Miss Donovan." A woman was speaking to her. Why couldn't she answer? "Miss Donovan, please stick out your tongue." It seemed an odd but perfectly reasonable request, so she complied.

Claire not only heard but felt someone walking toward her. She understood then that she was lying on the floor, which was rather uncomfortable. Why was she lying on the floor? And why was she sticking out her tongue?

"Why is she sticking out her tongue?" Mrs. Biddle asked. Even in Claire's confused state, Mrs. Biddle's voice was unmistakable: it had the grating edge of a woman who was accustomed to having things her own way.

"I was afraid she might swallow it," the first woman answered. "It can happen when people faint."

I fainted? Claire opened her eyes. The historical society's secretary, Adela Crenshaw, was kneeling beside her, gently patting her left hand. The other society members stood behind Adela in a concerned semicircle.

"Can it?" asked Mrs. Biddle, entirely unconvinced.

"I learned about it from a CPR course on the internet." Adela turned back to Claire and saw that she was conscious. "Ah, there she is."

"I fainted?" Claire asked. Adela smiled radiantly at her. But it was Mrs. Biddle, still standing over them, who answered.

"Yes, you fainted. Passed out cold and toppled like a ton of bricks. Good thing I caught you. And very good thing I spent my youth breaking in wild Arabians" -- horses, Claire wondered, or people? -- "or I would be a frail old lady lying underneath you with a broken hip. Okay, everyone, show's over. She's fine. Please help yourselves to iced tea and cookies in the reception area."

The others moved away to the vestibule as Adela and Mrs. Biddle helped Claire to her feet.

"This will make a very interesting story for the next newsletter," Mrs. Biddle said. "Wouldn't you say, Adela?"

"Very interesting. No one's ever passed out at the podium before," Adela explained.

Not for the first time did Claire reflect on the drawbacks of living in a town with fewer than a thousand inhabitants. Although she loved its Cape Cod locale and waterside ambience, loved that she could walk to the post office and the library and the General Store (and that there was a store actually named General Store), it was not possible to live an entirely private life in Harriott. Claire was certain that everyone would know she'd fainted while giving a talk to a small group of geriatrics, long before the historical society newsletter came out.

"Even Joshua Deerbottom," Mrs. Biddle broke in on her thoughts, "who is ninety-three years old, made it through his entire lecture on the Battle of Buzzards Bluff without once falling over. You're such a young thing, we did expect you to be able to stand for at least twenty minutes or so. You seem to be well enough."

If she were to rate her level of embarrassment from one to ten, Claire figured that she was hovering right around a nine.

Mrs. Biddle looked her over carefully. "Are you pregnant?"

And this was ten. "No."

"Well, there must be a reason."

"I think I just got too hot."

They had started toward the vestibule when Adela exclaimed brightly, "I almost forgot. We have something to show you." Claire followed them to the historical society office.

"Bitsy, do you know where I put it?" asked Adela, addressing Mrs. Biddle as Claire marveled that the petite but formidable woman should ever be spoken to so familiarly.

"Put what?" Mrs. Biddle said.

"The printout of that article I found on the internet. The one about Venice." Adela rifled through a few stacks of paper on her desk. "Oh, here it is." She handed two pages to Claire. "It seemed very much like the subject of your lecture."

VENICE CONFERENCE TO FEATURE NEW STUDIES IN VENETIAN HISTORY, the headline read. The article, from the online edition of the International Herald Tribune, announced that the upcoming five-day conference was being hosted by the Department of History at the University Ca' Foscari and would be attended by historians from all over Europe.

"Look at the second page, dear."

Claire turned to the second page of the article. Adela had kindly bracketed the crucial paragraph:

"Highlights of the conference include visiting history professor Andrea Kent of Trinity College, Cambridge, whose book in progress, The Spanish Conspiracy of 1618, will provide the subject matter for two lectures."

"Oh my god," Claire gasped. She would have sat down in shock except for the fact that there was only one chair in the room, and Adela was already in it.

"Maybe you should go and reveal passages from your book, too," said Adela encouragingly.

Even if she could afford a trip to Venice, there wasn't a chance she'd be asked to give a paper there. She wasn't a professor; she didn't even have her doctorate yet. But that wasn't her most important concern. What would happen if Andrea Kent's book was published before her dissertation was completed? She had believed the Spanish Conspiracy to be so obscure that her dissertation was unique -- a crucial quality if she were going to stand out in the crowd of new Ph.D.s competing for a handful of teaching positions. This book was disturbing news indeed; its very existence could ruin her life.

"Do you have any more information on this conference?" Claire asked.

"I'm sorry, no," Adela replied. "I just happened to come across this while I was looking for something else."

"I can guess what you were looking for," Mrs. Biddle harrumphed.

"And what's wrong with it? I've met some very nice gentlemen on the internet. In fact, I have a date for brunch on Sunday."

"That's five dates in three weeks," Mrs. Biddle said indignantly. "You're an eighty-year-old nymphomaniac."

"I am not," Adela protested. "I'm seventy-nine."

Copyright © 2007 by Christi Phillips

Meet the Author

Christi Phillips is the author of The Rossetti Letter, which has been translated into six foreign languages. Her research combines a few of her favorite things: old books, libraries, and travel. When she’s not rummaging around in an archive or exploring the historic heart of a European city, she lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is at work on her next novel, set in France. Visit www.christi-phillips.com.

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Rossetti Letter 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
AlisaLorrine More than 1 year ago
Although most of this book is fictional, the world of Venice and its history is very real. I was in vacation in Venice while I was reading this book and I was conflicted about experiencing Venice through the book or in real life! Granted, I was visiting in winter and it was freezing, so sitting in my hotel reading was not an odd thing to do... but it really was a page turner.. or for us nook users, a button pusher. At first, I kept wanted to read the sections about Rossetti, because they were such interesting chapters, but then as the modern day characters developed and plot thickened, I became excited to read the current day chapters. I'm mostly a historical fiction person, and this was a great breath of fresh air, as its half modern day and half historical. An absolute must read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It was an easy and fun read with great insight into historical Venice. Perfect if your'e looking for a vacation read while traveling in Italy!
ValentineCO More than 1 year ago
I really like the play on past verse present, the historical research involved, the puzzles and the love interest. The characters are a mix of intelligent and interesting. I enjoyed this book.
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