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Book Review: Death at la Fenice by Donna Leon

Don't judge a book by its cover they say. Never have I found it more true than in the case of this book. The cover is beautiful, the novel is anything b. Death at La Fenice was my first novel by Donna Leon and I have a feeling it's going to be my last. Why you might wonder? Well, for start I didn't like the novel as such. Moreover, it annoyed me because I found it offensive and xenophobic. How come a book like this not only got published but became popular? I'm bewildered....

...and there is a little voice saying to me: If you didn't know, you don't have to know how to write to publish a book. All you need to do is good marketing. All you need  to do is to pick a popular location, let's say Venice, populate it with one dimensional characters, every imaginable stereotype about Italy and the world, sentences that couldn't be called writing even if one was trying to be exceptionally kind- and there you go. Don't forget to randomly insert a bunch of Italian words to show your 'deep insight' into Italian culture. 

You don't have to know anything about writing a crime novel to write a crime novel either. You pick a protagonist, commissario Brunetti, give everything away in the first chapter and then drag the story on by repeating everything you already said one thousand times. What to say of Brunetti? Commissario Brunetti who is not even one dimensional (more lacking dimension) and the best you can do is keep talking about how we likes his coffee. If you pile on enough insignificant details, perhaps people won't notice you don't have an idea what characterization is or what it should look like. A clue: it's not piling insignificant details one onto another. 

Why bother with characterization? All of the motives why people in this world do anything can be explained in two ways:

1. Clearly he/she is Italian
2. Clearly he/she isn't Italian.

Why bother using your head? Why bother explaining things or trying to find sense in them? It's that simple. People do things because they are either Italian or not. That explains everything! Why, Donna Leon, that's so simple it is....incredibly simplified...and stupid. Or brilliant. That way you can get away with not using your head and still publish a novel. So, the joke is on the readers.

Not only were all the characters in the book one dimensional collection of stereotypes, the description of the society and the setting was a pile of prejudice and stereotype as well. The plot....wait was there a plot? Alright, let me be polite and call it a plot- the 'plot' had so many holes it was....I don't even know where to start. I can feel my brain cells dying in agony as I think of this book. The 'novel' opens with a poisoning of a famous opera conductor. Instead of investigating the murder, commissario Brunetti is being very nice to all people involved, especially the potential female suspects, and does not really work on solving the murder, and why would Brunetti be doing that, when he can make a few calls and wait for all the clues to fall into his lap. For it's Venice and everyone knows everyone so why shouldn't Brunetti just wait for everyone to supply him with bits of predicable information that will lead to predictable end.... Literally, the man does NOTHING! Everyone else works for Brunetti, all he does is make a few calls and/or rely on people he knows to lay it out to him in endless monologues.....and the dialogues are agonizingly boring!

Here is an example, Brunetti calls his a friend of his, who opens the conversation by sympathizing with comimissario over how 'pressured' he must feel to solve this case. Then Brunetti asks him to find out more about the opera conductor and his past affairs. They talk in length and then the friend asks Brunetti whether he is a hurry to get the information. The same friend who opened the conversation with Brunetti with the acknowledgement that Brunetti must be in hurry to get some piece of information and that is why he must be calling! Unfortunately, 100% percent of dialogues and monologues are self-serving, repetitive and boring. And so is the book.

The worst crime novel I read.....and one of the worst books I've read. It's a caricature of a novel. It's so bad, I felt it is an insult to books- even the most trashy writing is way better and can at least be considered a guilty pleasure. Here you feel the guilt for reading this, but no pleasure. It's guilty torture. On some level, it fascinates me how someone can write this badly. It fascinates me more than the fact that this book got published and read. In a way, reading this book was educational. Being able to write this badly has to be an accomplishment of some sort. I've never seen anyone mess up...every possible aspect of the book.There is a one passage in the book that says that everyone goes to La Fenice to show off their outfits and nobody bothers to listen to music. I found that highly unlikely. Surely there are culture snobs everywhere, but that's taking it too far. To suggest that not one single person attending an opera performance in Venice (of all places!) actually listened to music is unrealistic. However the book is filled with such logical flaws, the real reason why I'm mentioning that passage is because it makes me think of this book.  Maybe it is possible after all? Maybe most readers reading this don't notice anything wrong with it because they are simply not paying attention. Is it really true that most people can't tell what bad writing is?

I googled Donna Leon and found that she demanded her novels wouldn't be translated into Italian. 'Blessed are the Italians, for they will be spared of reading this book!', was the first thing that crossed by mind. But maybe some of them will read it after all? I wonder how they will feel about it. I found it extremely offensive towards the Italian culture. If I was an Italian, I would probably find this book extremely irritating. Not only is it packed with stereotypes about Italy, it takes itself way to seriously. There are some definite anti-catholic passages, like saying that Vatican newspapers preaches  inequality of woman to man. Seriously? If a catholic writer wrote such things and claims about any protestant church it would be scandal, yet when Donna Leon does it, then it is supposed to be alright because? Sounds like double standard to me!

Death at La Felice was honestly one of the worst book I've read. I'm not saying that the author of this book isn't intelligent. From what I gathered, Donna Leon does know a few things about opera. She is an educated woman, who taught English literature for years. She might have been an amazing lecturer and professor.  That doesn't change the fact that she can't write fiction. 

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