A jewel by Donna Leon

By admin
31 July 2013

Our book blogger is drawn into a Donna Leon book and feels as if she has been transported to Venice where the The Jewels of Paradise is set.

One of the books I grabbed at this year’s sale at Exclusive Books is Donna Leon’s The Jewels of Paradise (published in 2012). I’ve been a fan of Donna’s for a long time and strongly recommend her Commissioner Brunetti book series, though this one is a stand-alone.

For those new to Donna’s work, Brunetti is a police detective in Venice and the stories are about murders that take place in the city. Brunetti is barely on the trail of the killer when he has to go home for lunch with his wife. What follows is a detailed description of the pasta and artichokes and the meat simmered in this or that sauce. And don’t forget the wine enjoyed with the meal.

It’s a cross between Sherlock Holmes and a beautiful Nigella Lawson recipe book. I know it sounds as if it can’t possibly work but do read a Brunetti book; you’ll fall in love with this series, in which Venice is a major character.

I recently saw that Commissioner Brunetti now has his own recipe books, Brunetti’s Cookbook and A Taste of Venice. I haven’t seen these books yet but will definitely buy them and cook a little Italian feast. What is interesting about Donna is that she’s an American who has lived in Venice for more than 30 years, and that her books have been translated into many languages – but not Italian. I imagine the Italians would have much to say about her view of Venetian culture.

But back to the stand-alone. The Jewels of Paradise is not really a detective story in the true sense. It’s about Venetian musicologist Caterina Pellegrini, a young woman who returns to the city where she was born to work on an exciting research project. Two trunks of possessions of an Italian baroque musician called Steffani have been found after nearly three centuries. Two men, both claiming to be his heirs, ask Pellegrini to open the trunks and decide which of them is the rightful heir. Pellegrini spends hours in the library reading up about the composer, who was also a priest and childless. Meanehile there’s the man who follows her without uttering a word, making the hair on your neck rise.

The book is fairly slow but reminded me of AS Byatt’s Possession, in which a young researcher in the archives comes across an old love letter by his literary hero and begins to research its source.

But unlike Byatt’s story, a literary masterpiece that won the Booker Prize, Leon’s book is a lighter read. If you’re interested in music or libraries, or have enjoyed other books by Leon, you’ll enjoy this one.

-  Gerda Engelbrecht

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