The Rossetti Letter
by Christi Phillips

Published: 2007-03-06
Hardcover : 400 pages
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"With impeccable research into seventeenth-century Venetian politics...an intriguing literary suspense debut novel...an entertaining story with intrigue, espionage, and romance." -- Booklist

In this captivating debut, Christi Phillips blends fact and fiction, suspense and ...

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

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 Review

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The Hanged Man

3 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. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the Publisher:

Discuss the novel's structure. Did the alternating chapters between the past and the present enrich the reading experience? How so? In what ways does this technique allow the author to heighten the suspense in the story?

Claire's dissertation "filled her thoughts so completely that sometimes it was a shock, at the end of the day, to find herself returned to her mundane, uneventful, twenty-first century existence" (25). Completing her dissertation is an important milestone in Claire's career, but is she in a sense using the past to avoid living in the present? Why has Claire, as her friend Meredith claims, shut herself away?

Claire's first impression of Gwen is a negative one, and it's reinforced by the teen's inappropriate behavior during the flight to Venice. How does Claire come to change her opinion of Gwen during their time together? What does Gwen gain from her trip to Venice and also from Claire's influence?

When Alessandra finds out she is nearly penniless, why does she choose to become a courtesan rather than opt for one of the more traditional solutions to her predicament, such as entering a convent or living with relatives? Is it possible for modern-day readers to fully understand the constraints placed on women during this time period? Why or why not?

"Claire wondered how Alessandra felt about being a courtesan. She preferred to think that her heroine was happy, or at least complacent, knowing that she'd made the best of what life had offered her. But was it possible to be happy living the life that Alessandra lived? Or even content?" (152). Given what you know of Alessandra, how do you suppose she would answer these questions?

When Antonio first meets Alessandra, he is impressed with her "incredible self-possession" (161). What makes Alessandra, as Antonio acknowledges, different from the other women he has known? What compels him to confide in Alessandra the story of his ill-fated love and his father's death, something he has kept to himself for nine years?

Discuss the author's depiction of Venice, both in the seventeenth century and the present. How integral is the Venetian setting to the story? How does the author's use of historical facts about Venice color the narrative? Is this an aspect of the book you enjoyed? Why or why not?

"I did what I had to do," La Celestia says (322) about being pressured to arrange Alessandra's introduction to the marquis of Bedmar. Is La Celestia as much of a political pawn in this situation as Alessandra? Do you have any empathy for La Celestia? Why or why not?

At her manservant Nico's suggestion, Alessandra writes a letter detailing what she knows of the Spanish ambassador's plot and sets out to deliver it to the Great Council. What motivates Alessandra to take this course of action -- fear for her own safety, to avenge La Celestia's murder, a sense of civic duty, or something else?

What does Claire see in Giancarlo? Is she merely attracted to his good looks? Is he the kind of man with whom Claire will be able to build a life-long romantic relationship?

What prompts Claire to ask Andrew for help in translating Alessandra's letters? Does this encounter change their relationship personally as well as professionally? Why do you suppose Andrew is involved in a romantic relationship with a woman as unbecoming as Gabriella?

"Our job is to discover the truth, not make it up," Andrew says to Claire. Ultimately, what benefits Claire more in uncovering the truth about Alessandra's role in the Spanish conspiracy: her training as a historian or her intuition?

During his second lecture at the academic conference, why does Andrew call Claire to the podium and invite her to deliver the lecture? Did you find this to be a surprising gesture given his contentious history with Claire? Why does Claire at first refuse to take the stage when Andrew is offering her the very thing she came to Venice to seek -- recognition for her work?

What is the tipping point that finally compels Antonio and Alessandra to acknowledge their love for one another?

When Alessandra is imprisoned in the Doge's palace, does she make the right decision? What, if anything, could she have done differently?

Discuss the novel's ending. Were you surprised at the direction Alessandra's life takes? What instances in the story foreshadowed this turn of events?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

From the Publisher:

Tips to Enhance Your Book Club:

Take a virtual tour of Venice at www.italyguides.it, where you can view panoramas of the Doge's Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square), and other sites mentioned in The Rossetti Letter.

Play music by Vivaldi at your book club meeting. The Venetian composer is mentioned numerous times in the book, including the scene in which Claire dines at the Baldessaris' palazzo on the Grand Canal.

Serve the meal that Claire dined on her first night in Venice: mixed green salad and spaghetti alla vongole. A recipe for this pasta dish with clams can be found at www.suppertonight.co.uk/spaghettiallavongole.htm. Or opt for a classic margherita pizza, as did Gwen. Whatever you choose to eat, follow Claire's lead and sample a white Italian wine like pinot grigio.

Learn more about the history of Carnival and view photos of past celebrations at www.carnivalofvenice.com. There are also resources, tips, and advice for those who'd like to attend the Venetian extravaganza.

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "An interesting read"by hitormiss (see profile) 05/31/11

historical fiction book
The book went between two different time periods but easy to follow and both stories were very interesting and tied together. Would be a good choice for a book club
... (read more)

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