The Jewels of Paradiseby Donna Leon
From critically acclaimed best-selling novelist Donna Leon, her first stand-alone novel, a tale of music, religion, and the mysterious patrimony of a forgotten composer.
Donna Leon has won heaps of critical praise and legions of fans for her best-selling mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, one of contemporary crime fiction’s most beloved characters. Over twenty-one books this sharp, kind-hearted native Venetian has exposed readers to contemporary Venice in all its aspects: its arts and architecture, food and family life, but also its crime and insidious corruption. With The Jewels of Paradise, Leon takes readers beyond the world of the Venetian Questura in her first stand-alone novel.
Caterina Pellegrini is a native Venetian, and like so many of them, she’s had to leave home to pursue her career elsewhere, mostly abroad. With a doctorate in baroque opera from Vienna, she lands in Manchester, England, as a research fellow and assistant professor. Manchester, however, is no Venice, so when she gets word of a position back home, Caterina jumps at the opportunity.
The job is an unusual one. After nearly three centuries, two locked trunks, believed to contain the papers of a once-famous, now largely forgotten baroque composer, have been discovered. The composer was deeply connected in religious and political circles, but he died childless, and now two Venetian men, descendants of his cousins, each claim inheritance. With rumors of a treasure, they aren’t about to share the possible fortune. Caterina has been hired to attend the opening of the trunks and examine any enclosed papers to discover the “testamentary disposition” of the composer. But when her research takes her in unexpected directions and a silent man follows her through the streets, she begins to wonder just what secrets these trunks may hold. From a masterful writer, The Jewels of Paradise is a superb novel, a gripping tale of intrigue, music, history, and greed.
“A veteran mystery maven weaves present-day Venice into a 300-year-old puzzle in this engaging stand-alone. . . . [The Jewels of Paradise] packs the charms of Venice into a smart whodunit.” —Kirkus Reviews
“While it is undeniable strange to be wandering through Venice without the protection of Brunetti’s solid presence, the young heroine of this novel is so winning that readers should find themselves forgiving the Commissario his absence. . . . The Jewels of Paradise is as much a tale about a young woman wising up and learning to fight more effectively for her own happiness as it is a mystery—though the centuries-old secrets that those chests contain are also pretty compelling. Commissario Brunetti is allowed to take a vacation once in a while, but only if his replacements are as wry and erudite as Caterina.” —Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post
“The Jewels of Paradise . . . shares some features of the Brunetti mysteries–Venice’s mash-up of high and low culture, corrupt businessmen and Italian-style family squabbles. It also shares Leon’s elegant prose, with humorous, wonderfully detailed descriptions as seen through the eyes of her heroine.” —Jennifer Melick, Opera News
She could have taken a vaporetto if she had walked back to the Celestia stop, but she didn’t like that part of the city very much, however well-lighted most of it was, so she chose to walk through Santa Maria Formosa, out to Strada Nuova, and home the same way she used to return from school.
So much taken with the thought of the composer’s life was she that, at first, she paid no attention to the man who appeared beside her, as if to pass her, and then fell into step with her. She glanced aside, but seeing that it was not anyone she knew, she ignored him and slowed her steps to let him pass in front of her. But he slowed his as well and kept pace with her. They came down into the Campo, which was dark at this hour. The paving stones were covered with a thin film of humidity that dissipated and reflected the lights. A few meters beyond the bridge, where light also came from the windows of the shops on her right, she stopped.
She didn’t bother to pretend she wanted to take something from her bag: she simply stopped and stood still, waiting to see if the man would move off. He did not.
He turned and looked at her, and she didn’t like him. Just like that: instinctive, visceral, utterly irrational, but equally strong. Her instincts told her this was a bad man.
1. Why is Caterina Pellegrini so eager to return to Venice at the start of the novel? Why did she leave Italy in the first place? Are her negative feelings towards Manchester—her horror at its “physical ugliness,” for one—inspired by the place, or by her own sense of displacement?
2. What sort of institution is La Fondazione Musicale Italo-Tedesca? What does Roseanna Salvi tell Caterina about the Foundation’s prospects, and why did Caterina’s employers decide to base her research project there? What are they hoping she discovers?
3. The subject of Caterina’s research, the composer Steffani, also turns out to have spent much of his professional life outside of Italy. What other possible reason does Caterina find for the “unbearable sadness” she reads on Steffani’s face in a famous portrait of the musician? What would this potential condition have implied for Steffani’s life, and which aspect of it seems to most affect Caterina?
4. What is Caterina’s first impression of Dr. Moretti? What about him does she admire, and which of his qualities is she ambivalent about? What does she learn about him when they go to lunch?
5. What kind of a relationship does Caterina have with her sister Cristina? In what ways are they similar? How do they negotiate the sharp differences in the choices they’ve made in their lives? How is their epistolary friendship different because they correspond via email, rather than by letter?
6. Several emails into the sisters’ exchange, Cristina confesses that she’s “thinking of jumping ship . . . I’m deeply tired of it and of having to close an eye and then close the other one and then close the third one if I had it.” (p. 157). What is Christina referring to in this instance? Is hers a crisis of faith in God or the Catholic Church? Are there other reasons behind her desire for a change?
7. Caterina tries to make the case to Moretti that most things—not unlike religious articles such as the Book of Mormon or the Shroud of Turin—are “what enough people choose to believe” they are (p. 166), that is, either priceless relics or “nonsense.” All of Caterina’s examples are religious, but are there secular examples of objects invested with powerful meaning? From what do they derive their power?
8. What was the nature of Steffani’s relationship with the “original” cousins? Why is Caterina troubled by the tone of the letters she finds?
9. As their relationship continues to swing towards flirtation, Dr. Moretti continues to suggest opportunities for personal, rather than official, contact with Caterina. Increasingly, he also seems to show his aversion for his clients, the cousins. Why does a seemingly careful professional man insist on blurring these lines? What finally leads Caterina to conclude that he is a “coldhearted bastard?” Who is Dr. Moretti working for?
10. When Steffani’s will and the Jewels of Paradise are finally discovered by Caterina, what are the reactions of the cousins? Of Dr. Moretti? How does Caterina’s interpretation of Steffani’s bequest differ from Dr. Moretti’s?
11. Caterina’s mysterious patron—the Romanian who recommends her for the Venetian job—resurfaces several times throughout Caterina’s stay, whether in her memories of an ally in Manchester or as the owner of an email account Caterina easily accesses when she believes hers to be hacked. What is the nature of their relationship?