Book: Friends in High Places

ETA: I don’t know why, but this post seems to attract all kinds of spam. Because of that, I decided to close comments on this post alone. Feel free to comment on any other post, or drop me a line (ioscribacchina AT gmail), or ask me to open them again if you wish to comment here.


The book: Friends in High Places, by Donna Leon

The edition: Arrow Books paperback, 326 pages

The story: because I don’t want to risk writing spoilers, I won’t write a synopsis. If you are interested, check this one on Amazon, it’s clear and doesn’t let too much out.

My experience with this book & my thoughts: first off, I must say that in approaching this book I was somewhat biased. All I knew was that Donna Leon is a foreigner living in Italy, setting her books in Italy and not wanting her books to be translated into Italian. (Apparently, the reason is that she doesn’t want to be famous in the place she lives in. I only read that interview after reading the book; it may be like that, but I still find it somehow “suspect”.) Because of that, I expected the book to be critical of Italian society. It was worse: to me it seems based on prejudice alone, as if the author never really entered Italian society, and only lived in Italy inside an expat community. The story was interspersed with situation and details that made no sense to me — they would never happen in Italy as I know it, e.g. a mother writing snail mail letters to her son who lives a couple of hours away to study at the university, or a student affording a full apartment on his own in Venice. Also, I don’t agree with the way Italians are depicted to be, too much like the stereotype version of us — just some examples:

At no time did it occur to him, as it did not occur to Paola, to approach the matter legally… (p. 29)

Every fall, he sat up a still and made about fifty bottles of grappa, an entirely illegal operation. He gave the bottles to family and friends. (p. 34 – since when is home-made liquor illegal, if it is not sold?)

Like most Italians, Brunetti believed that records were kept of all phone calls made anywhere in the country and copies made of all faxes… (p. 181 – I do not know one Italian that believes such a thing – even in today’s political condition!)

After digging through all of this hurt national pride ( 🙂 ) I did quite enjoy the book as a crime story, the small side characters, the details of Venetian life. The very basis of this particular story is quite unrealistic (a public servant going to a private house on a Saturday morning, unannounced, to tell a citizen there is some problem with their documents? A policeman signing a contract that explicitly says the house he is buying is not legally built?), but I was ready to suspend my disbelief and plunge into the story, trying to understand implications and find out the answers. I guess I would even like to read more from the same author — except I don’t want to give her money for thrashing Italy the way she does!

What I liked: the story was well constructed, and I liked the way side stories were worked in, leaving the reader to wonder whether each detail would end up being relevant or not.

What I didn’t like: see above 😉 Oh, I also didn’t like the extremely detailed descriptions of people’s movements, such as:

“Franco Rossi,” he said, shifting his briefcase to his other hand and extending the right.
Brunetti took it, shook hands briefly, and stepped back to allow him to enter.
Politely, Rossi asked permission and then stepped into the apartment. Inside, he stopped and waited for Brunetti to tell him where to go.

Language & writing: from an author that has lived in Italy for over 25 years, I would expect a good knowledge of Italian; yet here, Leon gets plenty of Italian expressions wrong – either she never learnt Italian at all, or the book went through a very bad editing inserting errors everywhere. The most disturbing were “conoscienza” (it should be “conoscenza”) and “ingeniere” (instead of “ingegnere”), as well as “Aquilea” (a town near Venice, it’s really “Aquileia”, and I cannot believe you don’t check such a thing before publishing!).
Now, with that off my chest, I have to say that the language flew easily, but without being over-simplistic as it often is in crime stories: while it didn’t disturb the flow of the story, its lexicon was rich and interesting (check back on Wednesday for a word-related post!).
I also appreciated that Leon tried to convey the way Italian and dialect mingle in everyday talk (in Venice maybe more than elsewhere in Italy). In my opinion she didn’t succeed, but she deserves praise for even trying. (I am curious, though, to know whether someone not familiar with this linguistic situation in Italy would even realize there was such a try in the book…)

Read this if: if you like slow-paced crime stories with a lot of local color.

Counts as: What’s in a Name Challenge – Size; Italy in Books Challenge – book n. 3

This review is part of the
Loving the Reviews Challenge Extravaganza
at Sniffly Kitty’s Mostly Books blog


2 comments on “Book: Friends in High Places

  1. I always find it difficult to read a book about Portugal wirtten by non-Portuguese (e.g. 1808 by Brazilian Laurentino Alves or Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 by British Edward Paice).

    That being said, I also think that the fact that she doesn’t want the book translated “suspeito”…

  2. I guess when you live in a place you get your own idea about it, and struggle to accept other ideas. And there’s national pride also. Well, that’s one of the reasons for reading books set in Italy this year, part of the Italy in books challenge.
    Still, it’s very difficult for me to accept this one…

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