A Notorious Woman
A Notorious Woman begins in grand fashion. Set during Carnival in 16th century Venice, it is obvious from the outset that this story will be full of intrigue, and that readers will have to pay attention to the various twists and turns of the plot. Perfumer Julietta Bassano has been summoned to the home of an influential man only to find him lying dead of poison and his wife cowering in fear. From there an intricate web of relationships and treachery unfolds that starts off beautifully, but, unfortunately, loses steam as readers approach the end of the tale.
Soon after her gruesome discovery, Julietta meets sea captain Marc Antonio Velasquez, hero to Venetians for his defeat of the pirates who had tyrannized the port. Marc comes to her shop seeking a gift for his mother in Spain, and he finds himself quite enchanted by Julietta. However, unbeknownst to Julietta, Marc has reasons other than his trade which bring him to Venice. For her part, Julietta has her own dangerous secrets that lead her to live a rather solitary life. Still, she is deeply attracted to Marc and against her better judgment, allows herself to get swept into the magic of Carnival with him.
McCabe captures the atmosphere of Venice at Carnival quite vividly. Bits I suspected were not historically accurate still fit the mood so well that I wanted to believe in them anyway. The mixture of intrigue and the fun of masked revelers rebelling against the rules of propriety make for a heady brew, and I found myself carried along on the story, much as Julietta found herself carried along on the mood of Carnival. Had the entire book read like the first half, it would have come close to keeper territory.
Unfortunately, as the various threads of the plot converge, there does not seem space to contain them all. Without giving away any spoilers, the last third of the book relies upon too many mind-bending coincidences and the plot becomes quite rushed. While a higher page count would have helped, a bit more organization would have helped, too. Marc and Julietta’s relationship is undeniably passionate, but the early stages of the relationship often crowd out the other plot details and this leaves the author with little option but to speed things up at the end.
Even with plotting difficulties, Julietta and Marc are both likable characters and their relationship is enjoyable to follow. Even though theirs is a whirlwind courtship, it doesn’t always feel that way. Somehow it just seems natural that Marc would go from attraction to utter devotion to Julietta. Things between these two just feel deeply right and, even with the court intrigue and dark secrets that endanger them, I found myself wanting them to be together almost from the beginning. Usually in a romance, one character or the other takes time to win me over, but in this case, the chemistry was quite believable.
Many readers, including myself, have bemoaned the lack of variety in historical settings. While certainly not perfect, this book is the first of what I hope will be many to relieve that complaint. Though well-known for her Regency settings, McCabe proves herself quite versatile in this venture outside the time period. The events of the last third of the book sometimes stray into the realm of the unbelievable, but A Notorious Woman still has some sweet and passionate moments that garner it a qualified recommendation. Those on the hunt for a unique setting or over-the-top intrigues will want to try this one out.