After she nearly ruins her family with a terrible misstep, Elena Spira is sent to Venice to escape disgrace and to atone by caring for the ailing Samuel Farber. But the crumbling and decaying Ca’ Basilio palazzo, where Samuel is ensconced, holds tragic secrets, and little does Elena know how profoundly they will impact her. Soon she begins to sense that she is being watched by something. And when Samuel begins to have hallucinations that make him violent and unpredictable, she can’t deny she’s in mortal danger.
Then impoverished nobleman Nero Basilio, Samuel’s closest friend and the owner of the palazzo, arrives. Elena finds herself entangled with both men in a world where the past seeps into the present and nothing is as it seems. As Elena struggles to discover the haunting truth before it destroys her, a dark force seems to hold Samuel and the Basilio in thrall—is it madness, or something more sinister?
For a book claiming to be a “Venetian” ghost story, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of Venice in it. I suppose that’s the point as Elena is pretty much trapped in a moldering marble palazzo with a situation that seems more and more like a possession case than the medical emergency she had assumed she was hired for. It also becomes more clear that the death of the former betrothed of Nero Basilio is a lot more complicated than the initial “accident” everyone claims it is. At its heart, this really is a ghost story. There is no real world explanation for the events, they legitimately are supernatural. The writing is good at keeping the trapped, desperate feel of all the players: Samuel by his epilepsy, Elena by her mistake that leads to an expected marriage to a country cousin as penance, Nero by his poverty and past. Elena is willing to put up with a lot more craziness than a person in her situation generally would based on the fact that she’s absolutely desperate to avoid going straight back home to be buried on a farm milking cows with a man she doesn’t even know for a husband. And by a lot more craziness, I mean nearly getting strangled every other chapter.
The book’s weakest point is its romance in a lot of ways, which is a shame since the last half of the book focuses on that. I think it’s mainly the impression I kept being left with that Elena was a REALLY bad judge of male character. The book tries to argue it away in saying she’s “ripe for seduction”, but it’s more than that. She makes two staggeringly bad romantic decisions, both of which are based on men deceiving her. I would have given her the benefit of the doubt on having that happen once, but twice in one book is starting to look like active ignorance on her part. In her defense it can’t really be helped that she’s being lied to, but on the other hand you’d think she’d be a little more cagey when it comes to believing people (particularly love interests). I suppose this is the Gothic element of the romance (there are more than a few parallels to Crimson Peak here) and I could buy her being misled by the second man if the whole reason her life has gone to hell in a hand basket when we meet her wasn’t because of a guy lying to her. Perhaps that’s a small thing to have really bothered me, but it was enough to make me wish that Elena’s initial “mistake” hadn’t involved almost the same situation that happens to her within the novel itself.
3 out of 5