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Review: The Rossetti Letter, by Christi Phillips

The Rossetti Letter is a dual time period novel. In the modern day, Claire Donovan is completing her doctoral degree in early modern European history, writing her dissertation on the Spanish Conspiracy of 1618, in which the Spanish ambassador to Venice planned a takeover of the Republic. The plot of the conspiracy was denounced by a courtesan named Alessandra Rossetti, who had lovers in many influential places. Claire travels to Venice, where she finds that someone else, a well-known Cambridge historian, is writing a book on the exact same subject she is.

I enjoyed the historical part of this novel much more than the modern-day bits. It’s clear that the author doesn’t know much about modern-day academia. First, it stretches credibility that someone completing her doctorate would not have visited the country in which her dissertation is set. Claire’s dissertation is on the Spanish Conspiracy, yet before the events of the book, she’d never set foot in Venice or Spain to do her research. OK, I’ll buy that she doesn’t have much money, but in that case, wouldn’t she have gotten a grant or some kind of funding to travel?

I didn’t really understand why Claire wouldn’t have known about Andrew Kent’s research. Isn’t it the job of an academic to know who their competition is, especially if that competition is supposedly well-known in their field of study? Then there are the scenes in the Biblioteca Marciana. I found it hard to believe that Claire would be able to just send an e-mail, flash her idea, and waltz right on into a prestigious library. Don’t you need letters of reference or something for entrance if you’re still a student? It seemed strange to me that a librarian of a prestigious Venetian library would disclose information about who had a prior hold on a book—or that she would suggest that Claire use sex to get what she wants. I guess the author was trying to make a connection between Alessandra and Claire, but it was really unrealistic all the same. If Claire reads and writes Italian, then why is she reading her sources in an English translation, in an abridged format? I was also a bit disturbed by her, and Gwen’s blatant disregard for government property later on in the book.

However, as I said, I really enjoyed the historical half of the book. The author clearly loves Venice and early modern history, and the city of Venice comes alive in the pages of this novel. I’ve only made one trip to Venice, but I loved it while I was there; and it’s always good to find someone else who loves it, too. The early 17th century in Europe was a time of great change—as well as of great danger—and Phillips outlines the conspiracy very well, as Spain’s power waned on the even of the Thirty Years’ War. The historical part of the book is clearly well-researched, and I enjoyed reading along to figure out the mystery. The story moves very quickly, and the transition from one time period to the other isn’t jarring. I’ve read Phillips’s other book, The Devlin Diary, and enjoyed it for the most part, too—but I had the same kind of problems with it as I had with this book.

Also reviewed by: Shh I'm Reading


Meghan said…
Yeah, you're right about all the problems with the PhD stuff! At least here in the UK, my supervisor has made it pretty clear that if I was doing this as a PhD thesis rather than an MA dissertation, I'd be doing a lot more traveling to look at originals. There is funding available for it and you have summers in which you should really be going over there.

Also, you really do know everything that's going on in your particular field. As I said before, I'm only doing an MA, but we know who is working on what unless they've kept it a secret (very unlikely). This is partly because I have a supervisor who is completely on top of my subject, but you would never start a PhD with someone who wasn't similarly engaged in yours.

As for library research, it depends on the library. You can get into some libraries here fairly easily but it takes a couple of days since you have to tell them what you're interested in and why and sometimes apply for a reader card. I don't know what it's like on the continent.

I'm still interested in reading these books but I'm going to have to suspend my disbelief a little bit!

- Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm
Gwendolyn B. said…
Thanks for posting your review! I haven't read this one, but I'm just finishing up THE DEVLIN DIARY and my thinking is along the same lines. I experienced the same thing with THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERENCE DANE. I really enjoy the historical aspects so much more, but it makes me wonder about the accuracy. Oh, well, that's entertainment, after all!
Marg said…
I just borrowed this book from the library. I will definitely be keeping your comments in mind.

BTW, I send you a Private Message over at HFO. Did you get it?
Lezlie said…
I enjoyed the historical parts the best in both of these books, also. I don't know a thing about modern academia, so I was able to just roll with it. :-)

Kristen M. said…
I just finished The Devlin Diary as well ... what is up with the glamorous librarians everywhere?!? I didn't like this one as much as Rossetti just because there wasn't even really any research going on.

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