Alessandra Rossetti, a courtesan, becomes entangled in a conspiracy that threatens to destroy seventeenth century Venice. She alone has the power to reveal a Spanish plot.
Centuries later, Claire Donovan is writing her dissertation on the young courtesan. She knows that Alessandra wrote a secret letter exposing the Spanish conspiracy. But how Alessandra learnt of it, or what happened to her afterwards is still a mystery. Claire hopes to uncover the secrets of the courtesan's life within Venice's ancient libraries and prove Alessandra deserves her place in history.
But upon arrival in Venice, Claire learns that Cambridge professor Andrew Kent is to present a paper, asserting that Alessandra was a co-conspirator of the Spanish. If he can prove this, Claire's work and academic career will be ruined. She knows she must discover the facts in order to save her own future. And as she races to find the truth, the beauty and romance of Venice will also bring the passion back into Claire's own life.
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.