If you can’t travel to Venice in the real world, the next best thing is to travel vicariously in the novels of Donna Leon. Formally speaking, these novels are squarely in the mystery genre, but Leon devotes as much attention to her locale (Venice, of course) and her characters (primarily Commissario Guido Brunetti and his family) as she does to the plot of the mystery. Some readers might find this balance disappointing, but the books are much the richer for it.
The Girl of His Dreams is the latest in Leon’s Brunetti series. The characters continue from Blood from a Stone and Death at La Fenice, both of which I read last year; the stories are independent. This time we have a lot about religion: the Roman Catholic church, Catholic priests, and a somewhat vague alternative but Christian religion that might be a cult or at least a scam. The teenagers are a little less stereotypical now, perhaps because they’re older. There is also a continuation of two themes from Blood from a Stone, ethnic prejudice and the presence of foreigners in Venice. This time the foreign group is Gypsies, who have fled from the former Yugoslavia during the conflicts there. Political issues infuse the novel, ranging from the treatment of Gypsies to the word itself to the Venetians’ attitude toward the Church. Leon’s pace is fairly slow and deliberate, but the book is never boring. Do read it.
A small linguistic note:
Leon is an American living in Venice, so she wrote the book in English, though Italian and Venetian are sprinkled lightly throughout to add an air of authenticity. The linguistic issue arises when two characters decide whether to call each other by the familiar or the polite second-person pronoun. I’m familiar with this issue in French and German, and I’ve asked Spanish-speakers about it in Spanish, but I don’t know much about it in Italian. Nevertheless, I understand that an Italian author could simply make a point by having a character say “tu” or “voi.” This distinction is nearly impossible to translate into English, thereby requiring some sort of circumlocation or paraphrase. But the English-speaking writer can simply have her characters say something like, “Shall we call each other tu?” or even “Shall we use the familiar form of the pronoun?” The latter, of course, would be unbearably pedantic and implausible, so we have to assume that the reader will understand “tu” from context or from familiarity with other Romance languages.