Book Review: The Girl of His Dreams, by Donna Leon

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti reaches its 17th installment

TVR Books | Guy Kiddey | December 2008 / January 2009

More Death In Venice

Donna Leon is a phenomenon in Vienna; readers are captivated by her characters – Commissario Guido Brunetti the Venetian detective, his academic wife Paula, his corrupt superior Questore Patta, and redoubtable executive secretary Segnorina Elettra.  This is genre fiction, with a formulaic structure, sometimes strained epithets that keep the characters firmly under the writer’s control, fashionable, contemporary issues verging on stereotype.

But I kept on reading. And let myself loose.  It dawned on me that for the first time in my life, I was reading for pleasure, and getting it.  I chuckled my way through melodrama that made me feel all warm and well treated, all part of the ever growing accumulation of Brunetti’s adventures. The canon of the commisario now numbers fifteen volumes, and I wondered how much longer the framework could be sustained.

"I’m on a book a year," Leon said at her recent appearance at Vienna’s Belvedere Palace. "I don’t have time to write anything else."  Donna Leon is a career writer; books are her bread winner, and, having found a niche, she is disinclined to explore.

However, I was absorbed and enjoying the page-turning so what did all that matter?  I found I liked the simplicity and the quaintness. Leon has a good mind for a plot, a tidy conception of character and a benign world view that softens the sometimes horrific nature of the crimes her impresario must solve.

Her latest novel is based on the true story of a delayed baby-requisition; the Italian police prolonged their claim to the illegally adopted child for eighteen months, as they wanted to fathom the inner-working of the criminal cell behind the newborn’s trade.

It is the poignant prose, Brunetti’s humanity and his solid family – A strong minded wife who is a goddess in the kitchen, a son (a little wayward but improving), a daughter (the apple of her father’s eye) which brings normality to the narratives.  Readers can identify with what they read; Leon presents the endearing affairs of everyday life and, although her character construction and manoeuvering is unsophisticated, she fills in where assumptions would otherwise lie, bringing buoyancy to the books.

"I am a carpenter" she exclaimed to the packed hall. "Give me a plumber’s job, and I’d fail."  She knows her space, and she occupies it comfortably. At her reading-cum-podium discussion, she languished as her moderator got lost in himself.  Peter, the articulate Englishman, equally able in German, somewhat overshadowed the star act, and waffled his way into his own anecdotes.  He made the audience laugh, but where was Donna Leon? She was either under-prepared, or bored.

Her comments were banal, without expansion, and she mumbled into her microphone, making her speech difficult to understand. In an attempt at honesty, she came across conceited.  She was, it seems, too comfortable to care.

There had, of course, to be the Obama interlude, a characteristic of any public event at the moment.  As every other American abroad  rejoices in the "new birth of freedom" (all Democrats -- a Republican abroad would be simply oxymoronic) as the President-elect was choosing his oratory in honour of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, she was decidedly downhearted. 

"I am delighted that he won, but at the age of 60, I have been deceived by too many politicians, in too many countries, to grant myself the luxury of optimism," she said. Well, we might as well all curl up and die then, I thought.

Meanwhile, the cameraman next to me in the press seating had fallen asleep.

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