Jan/Feb 2013  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Jewels of Paradise

Review by Ann Skea

The Jewels of Paradise.
Donna Leony.
Random House. 2012. 276 pp.
ISBN 978 0 434022 228 1.

Caterina Pellegrini is a young Venetian musicologist hired to find the truthful heir to an alleged treasure concealed by a once-famous baroque composer... A gripping tale of Intrigue, Music and Obsession.

The publicity material for this book says that it is based on the true story of the composer Agostino Steffani—with "months and months of research" by author, Donna Leon, and musicologist, Cecilia Bartoli. Sadly, the months and months of research show through, and most of this book consists of Dottoressa Caterina Pelligrini's far from gripping trawl through old documents, computer archives, and obscure and complex history, larded with words and phrases in Venetian dialect, many of which cannot be found in an ordinary Italian-English dictionary.

If you are an academic researcher, you may warm to the daily work of Dottoressa Pellegrini as she investigates the contents of two ancient chests that once belonged to bishop/composer/possible castrato, Agostino Steffani.

If you love baroque music, you may be interested by the discussions of well-known and lesser-known libretti, aria, and musicology of a few famous and not-so-famous composers.

If you have visited Venice, you will probably recognize the various famous places Caterina walks past or mentions as she moves around the city from workplace to library (the Marciana) to her accommodation and the home of her parents. However, unless you have a map if Venice in front of you or a photographic memory of the City's labyrinth of narrow streets and canals, the street names mentioned in her very restricted peregrinations will mean little to you.

Each of the characters in the book is carefully described, but most of them remain as wooden and spot-lit as "The Bears," which is Caterina's name for the family she sees once or twice through their lit kitchen window across the "calle" from her apartment. If you have never been to Venice and don't know what a "calle" is, you won't find it in the dictionary. A general computer search will tell you that it is Spanish for "street"—but how it came to be part of the Venetian dialect, I never discovered.

All of these things exemplify the problems I had with this book. Scattering foreign dialect words and phrases in a text does not provide local color: it is just annoying, unless you know their meanings. Long descriptions of research techniques are boring and add nothing to the story. Caterina's learned musings on musicology are admirable but of passing interest, and her descriptions of complex historical intrigues involving kings, Electors, princesses, mistresses, churchmen, and possibly, Steffani, are sometimes hard to follow.

The story itself is thin and relies on all these devices to bulk it out. There is one fleeting hint of danger; a passing suggestion of romance, and an ending which is anti-climatic, hedged, as it is, by Caterina's already hinted at questioning of the meaning of "treasure." The happy ending in the final paragraph is just trite.

Donna Leon is an American academic and writer who has travelled widely and is an expert on opera. She has lived in Venice for the past 30 years, and her series of detective stories featuring the Venetian Commissario Brunetti is well-loved and highly regarded. The cover of The Jewels of Paradise carries praise for her work from the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian but, as is common practice now, the praise is not for this book but for some earlier unspecified book or books. Sadly, The Jewels of Paradise is not deserving of such praise.


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