“‘Is there no pity left in any soul?'” The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

May 11, 2008 at 7:55 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Roiled. Distressed. Even distraught. Even in tears. That was me, wandering through the house in the early hours of this morning, contemplating the emotional wreckage so vividly depicted in Donna Leon’s seventeenth Guido Brunetti novel.

The book begins and ends with a funeral. In between these two solemn events, Brunetti and his team investigate the death of an eleven-year-old girl found floating in one of Venice’s many canals. Identifying her is the first priority. She turns out to be a child of the Gypsies – or, more properly, the Rom. Her parents are eventually located in an encampment outside the city. The scene in which the mother is informed of her daughter’s death is shattering, like something from one of the great Greek tragedies.

Interestingly, Brunetti has been reading in just this area, encouraged by Paola, his ferociously intellectual wife. (A university professor whose personality is a nice synthesis of the brainy and the sensual, Paola is one of my favorite continuing characters in this series.) This conscientious, caring policeman is haunted by the scene in The Trojan Women by Euripides in which Hecuba bewails the death of her grandson Astyanax: “‘I, homeless, childless, and the one to lay you in your grave, you so young and miserably dead.'”

[ Engraving of the death of Astyanax]

Once again, Leon gives us a Venice with all its contradictions: choked with the tourists that are its life blood, filled with hidden beauty, its people by turns generous and ruthless. And once again, she limns a society where favors are traded, and veiled – and not so veiled – threats are made against those who would pursue justice into unwelcome territory.

Of course, much of the beauty of Venice is in plain sight. At one point, Brunetti wanders into a church to look at a favorite painting, Tintoretto’s Crucifixion:

“Brunetti had always been struck by how bored this Christ looked, stuck artfully up there on his cross, posed in front of the hedge of perpendicular spears that divided the painting in half. Christ seemed finally to have come to accept the truth of those warnings that all this business about becoming human would come to no good; He seemed eager to get back to the job of being God.

Passages like this illustrate well the reason why so many of us cherish Donna Leon. This is simply not the kind of scene, not to mention the caliber of the writing, that you commonly find in contemporary crime fiction.

Guido Brunetti is not in the mold of the middle-aged detective with secret sorrows and a messed up personal life. On the contrary, his family – he and Paola have two children – is what sustains him, the one immutable good in his troubled universe. He knows he can go back to them and find renewed strength with which to fight the good fight. And go back he does, especially when a meal is on offer. The entire family frequently has lunch together as well as dinner. We readers are invariably told just what’s on offer chez Brunetti, and it’s inevitably something utterly mouth watering: fusilli with black olives and mozzarella and calamari ripieni, for example. Even the pizza sounds special, when kicked up several notches with mozzarella di bufala and pomodorini!

Believe me, you’ll be as grateful for these interludes of warmth and sanity as Brunetti himself is.

As I was reading The Girl of His Dreams, I kept waiting for the meaning of the title to come clear. It eventually does, with the utmost poignancy.

Donna Leon


  1. Kerrie said,

    Thank you for this review Roberta. You captured so much of what I found too.

    Donna Leon is an author I always look forward to reading new offerings from.

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Kerrie, I really like your review. I intended to write about Father Antonin Scallon, but somehwo the review didn’t include him. I like “Mysteries in Paradise” and am adding it to my blogroll.

  3. Venice, in life and in literature « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 16, 2008 at 1:06 pm (Mystery fiction, books) (Venice) Re Donna Leon’s novel The Girl of His Dreams; with what pleasure did I encounter mention of a certain Venetian landmark, as Commissario Brunetti […]

  4. Cornucopia of crime fiction « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] you may discover for yourself some glaring omissions. One that leaped out at me instantly was Donna Leon, poet – and scourge! – of […]

  5. Mysteries of Italy…and the mystery of what to read next when you’ve just finished a terrific book « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 2009 at 12:53 pm (Book review, Italy, Mystery fiction, books) I love the unforced way in which Donna Leon’s prose transforms itself into poetry: “Brunetti had not been to the industrial area […]

  6. Elaine Simpson-Long said,

    I simply adore these books and concur with every single word of your lovely post, particularly the bit about the food…!

  7. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Ghost – Robert Harris Blue Heaven – C.J. Box Suffer the Little Children, A Sea of Troubles, Girl of His Dreams – Donna Leon Careful Use of Compliments and novels in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency […]

  8. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of crime fiction to his “hapless friend.” My first response to this was the following: Donna Leon, Donna Leon, and Donna Leon. But no – there are, of course others: Alexander McCall Smith, […]

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