The Venice Sketchbook

Written by Rhys Bowen
Review by Gail M. Murray

Bowen’s vivid storytelling style holds readers enrapt. Caroline inherits her beloved great-aunt Juliet’s sketchbook, three keys, and hears her final whisper, “mi angelo…you find… Venice.” Meticulously placed clues enable the reader to unravel the mystery, discovering young Juliet’s life of impossible love, loss, and courage. Although it uses a dual timeline, the focus is on Juliet, an Englishwoman, who in 1928 falls into the canal while attempting to rescue kittens and is fished out by handsome Venetian count Leonardo da Rossi. They are star-crossed from the outset, as Leo is betrothed to Bianca from a prominent shipping family – an arranged marriage, a business transaction. Leo and Juliet share a romantic picnic and her first kiss.

In 1938, Juliet returns. By chance or fate, she reconnects with Leo at the Biennale – Venice’s international art festival. As Juliet studies art, she comes to know everyday Venice of blustery winter winds, relentless rain and agua alta (floods), festivals, soirees and tradition – the strongest being family. With so many saints, there are always festivi: Santa Lucia Day putting out straw for her donkey, Saint Martin’s Day with songs and sugar biscuits, Fest of Madonna Della Salute with a bridge of boats built across the canal. With WWII looming, Venetians think they will be safe, even Jewish residents. As Nazis patrol the streets, Juliet, an enemy alien, is in grave danger.

Bowen has written a tender, poignant story balancing dark and light. “The sun was setting across the lagoon, tinging the water with a pink glow. Bells rang out from a distant church. I took a deep breath trying to take it all in – almost wanting to trap it in a bottle.”