Jewels of Paradise (Leon)

The Jewels of Paradise 
Donna Leon, 2012
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780802120656

Donna Leon has won heaps of critical praise and legions of fans for her best-selling mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. With The Jewels of Paradise, Leon takes readers beyond the world of the Venetian Questura in her first standalone novel.

Caterina Pellegrini is a native Venetian, and like so many of them, she’s had to leave home to pursue her career. With a doctorate in baroque opera from Vienna, she lands in Manchester, England. Manchester, however, is no Venice. When Caterina gets word of a position back home, she jumps at the opportunity.

The job is an unusual one. After nearly three centuries, two locked trunks, believed to contain the papers of a baroque composer have been discovered. Deeply-connected in religious and political circles, the composer died childless; now two Venetians, descendants of his cousins, each claim inheritance. Caterina’s job is to examine any enclosed papers to discover the “testamentary disposition” of the composer.

But when her research takes her in unexpected directions 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Montclair, New Jersey, USA
Awards—Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger Award
Currently—lives in Venice

Donna Leon is the American author of a series of crime novels set in Venice and featuring the fictional hero Commissario Guido Brunetti. Her 2013 novel, The Jewels of Paradise is her first stand alone mystery novel.

Leon has lived in Venice for over 25 years. She was a lecturer in English Literature for the University of Maryland University College-Europe (UMUC-Europe) in Italy, and then worked as a Professor from 1981 to 1999 at the American military base of Vicenza (Italy. She stopped teaching and concentrated on writing and other cultural activities in the field of music (especially Baroque music).

The Commissario Brunetti novels are all situated in or around Venice. They are written in English and translated into many foreign languages, but not into Italian, at Leon's request. The ninth Brunetti novel, Friends in High Places, won the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger in 2000. German Television has produced 18 Commissario Brunetti mysteries for broadcast. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 7/14/2013.)

Book Reviews
Leon's first stand-alone mystery, and, while it is undeniably 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.... 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  - Washington Post

Written with all Leon's elegant delicacy combined with her ability to reveal the truth almost without your noticing, this a little gem of a book, immersed as it is in Leon's own love for the baroque.
Geoffrey Wansell - Daily Mail (UK)

Bestseller Leon debuts a stand-alone. Opera expert Caterina Pellegrini, who’s been teaching in Manchester, England, returns home to Venice to...[research] the contents of recently discovered trunks believed to have belonged to a once renowned baroque composer.... Despite the intriguing setup, Leon uncharacteristically fails to mine the premise for maximal emotion....and finally, out of the blue, there’s a slapdash deus ex machina ending. Consider this one a paradise lost.
Publishers Weekly

[S]et in present-day Venice. Caterina Pellegrini, a researcher and music scholar, is...presented with two trunks that hold the papers of a 17th-century composer. She discovers not only unpublished scores but references to a hidden treasure.... Caterina investigates the composer and the cousins to discover the truth of the mysterious jewels. Verdict: Steeped in the language and music of the past, this novel lingers between the baroque era and the modern world, leading the reader on an informed ramble through Venice.  —Catherine Lantz, Morton Coll. Lib., Cicero, IL
Library Journal

Fascinating.... [Leon's] first stand-alone …boasts the same sensitivity to human behavior that distinguishes her Guido Brunetti series.
Bill Ott - Booklist

A veteran mystery maven weaves present-day Venice into a 300-year-old puzzle in this engaging stand-alone. Caterina Pellegrini....has accepted a commission from two venal cousins and their suave lawyer to examine the contents of two locked trunks...believed to contain the papers of a long-dead composer.... Along the way, she discovers the hidden story of the composer's tragic life and, perhaps, puts her own back on track.... While the plot can get a bit academic at times—mixing Catholic Church politics with music and legal terms—...[and] while lacking some of the warmth of the Brunetti series, Leon's stand-alone still packs the charms of Venice into a smart whodunit.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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