A review of The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman

Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs

The Sonnet Lover
by Carol Goodman
Piatkus
UK, 2007, 344 pp, RRP $32.95, ISBN 97807 49938314

The Sonnet Lover is described by its publishers as a ‘tense and seductive literary thriller’, and the cover quote from the Daily Express describes it as ‘Miss Jean Brodie meets Donna Tartt’. This latter description is true only to the extent that the protagonist is a teacher (though, unlike Miss Jean Brodie, at a university, not a secondary school), and the storyline concerns the death of a student, which may or may not be a suicide. But this is where such resemblances end. This novel, to my mind, actually has more in common with A.S. Byatt’s Possession, with its overriding theme of uncovering previously unknown facts about the lives of famous writers, in this case, William Shakespeare. Carol Goodman is no Byatt, though she certainly knows how to produce a page-turner, but the similarities in theme to these works I’ve mentioned does somewhat water down the novel’s impact – which is a shame, given that this is quality writing, with well-drawn characters, convincing dialogue, and a labyrinthine plot.

The main protagonist is Dr Rose Asher, a lecturer in Renaissance poetry at a prestigious American College who, as an undergraduate, had spent a year in Tuscany where she embarked upon an affair with her married tutor – an affair which ended badly. After a gifted student of Rose’s falls (or is pushed) off a balcony, Rose returns to the Tuscan villa, La Civetta, because her deceased student, Robin Weiss, had written a screenplay based on a theory he had developed while also studying at La Civetta.Weiss’s research suggested that the identity of the ‘dark lady’ of the Shakespearean sonnets was a sixteenth century poet, Ginevra de Laura, who had lived at the villa at the time. Because Robin’s death occurred amid accusations of plagiarism, and with Hollywood knocking on the door for the rights to the story, Rose seeks to uncover his sources and discover the truth about his theory and his death – a death in which her former lover’s son, Orlando, is implicated

As significant as the human characters are La Civetta’s traditional mosaic floors. These feature semi-precious stones and contain a design of ‘rose petals’ that, in certain lights, appear as blood. These floor designs, along with the paintings in the villa’s bridal chamber and a series of de Laura’s poems Rose finds concealed in the room, provide clues that help Rose to decipher and uncover the details of de Laura’s rape by the villa’s brutal owner in the 1500s. It appears that the rose petals/blood are de Laura’s and her father’s (the artisan’s) code for the loss of de Laura’s virginity in violent circumstances.

The narrative moves along nicely, and is coloured with evocative descriptions of Italian lifestyle, architecture and landscape. My main qualm is that it all ends rather too neatly – the protagonist’s boyfriend, a university Vice Chancellor, turns out to be mercenary and devious in his quest to obtain La Civetta for the university; Rose’s lover of twenty years past is still interested in pursuing the relationship, as those who had previously stood in the way of the union (his wife and son), are revealed as evil, unethical, or stupid. The love object, Bruno, is, of course, blameless (even though he’d had an illicit affair with Rose when he was married and she was just nineteen and decidedly naive – a challenge to any reader’s sense of what is ethical behaviour for a middle-aged educator). But these are criticisms of characterisation, not of plot or execution.

The Sonnet Lover is tightly plotted and skilfully executed, and would appeal particularly to lovers of literary sleuthing and academic intrigue, courtly poetry, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Venice and Florence, and readers familiar with the political wranglings that go on behind closed doors in universities. It’s a shame the author resorted to a Mills and Boon-ish ending for a story that raises a great number of much more interesting questions than just whether the heroine ‘gets her man’. Regardless, this is still one of the more intriguing novels I’ve read this year.

About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).

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