Dying for Siena
In Dying for Siena author Elizabeth Jennings niftily plaits three strands of an unpretentious, airy tale of light fiction. Intertwined are the investigation of a murder in picturesque, cozy Siena, Italy, the coming of age of 27-year-old Faith Murphy, and the Italian joie de vivre and laid-back way of life as illustrated in Dante Rossi’s character. Each thread is granted equal importance and space. However, that also means that Dying for Siena is neither a tight mystery nor a touching romance, but rather wishy-washy, and if you don’t care for one thread, you might find that it affects your opinion of the whole book.
In Deerfield, Massachusetts, Italian American Nick Rossi’s high-profile hockey career has come to an abrupt end after he suffers a head injury during a game. When the doctors break the news to him, he goes out on a drinking binge, runs into Faith Murphy, one of his sister’s friends, and spends the night with her. The next day he wakes up with a thick head and barely a memory of what happened. Once he sobers up, he ruefully tries to find Faith in order to make up.
Shy mathematician Faith Murphy is crushed when Nick Rossi doesn’t even remember her name after they make love. And even more humiliating, she was obviously just a random surrogate for a hot date of Nick’s who didn’t show up. She scurries out of his place.
Thirty hours later Faith arrives in Siena, Italy, filling in for an ill colleague in the “Seminar of Quantitative Methods” which is jointly hosted by the University of Siena and St. Vincent’s college in Deerfield. It is Faith’s first participation in this prestigious mathematics seminar and a great chance to boost her budding career as a mathematician after years of plodding in an underpaid and unappreciated job. As if to prove once again that Murphy’s Law applies specifically to her, a jet-lagged and exhausted Faith finds her boss Roland Kane, a professor of applied mathematics and an acknowledged jerk, murdered, and herself one of the main suspects.
Ancient Siena is replete with history and atmosphere. Dante Rossi from the Sienese police, an attractive, smart Italian commissario, is the murder investigator; he also is Nick Rossi’s cousin. The entire Sienese population, among them Dante, is obsessed with the Palio, the traditional Sienese horse race. It is July and Palio season, and Dante grudgingly divides his attention between his duty and the skimpiest details of his beloved Palio. The investigation into the murder of Professor Roland Kane, a notorious alcoholic and human trash, leads Dante Rossi to many suspects, all of whom seems to have an axe to grind with the deceased. Dante scrutinizes the victim’s life, for in his opinion, a victim’s character is most likely the motive for his murder.
Faith Murphy recently received her PhD after years of financial struggle and suffering under her odious boss at St. Vincent’s college. In beautiful, sunny Siena Faith comes into her own, dealing with being a murder suspect and her feelings for Nick Rossi, who followed her to Siena, and finally getting the professional acknowledgment she has been working for all these years. But, the romance aspect in Dying for Siena, albeit sweet, is only a secondary aspect of the story.
Reading Dying for Siena was like going on a virtual vacation to Italy, peeking into an unknown world and making some nice acquaintances along the way. Elizabeth Jennings’ jaunty storytelling and enthusiasm were infectious, and I willingly followed her when she guided me through her Siena and showed me an Italian microcosm she obviously knows well and adores. I found Faith, Dante, and Nick to be likable and refreshingly normal characters.
However, I would have liked Dying for Siena better had the author concentrated more on the mystery (the mystery thread was best) and the characters and less on Siena and the horse race. The details on the Palio were at times overwhelming and repetitive – I rolled my eyes at this Sienese obsession and soon had had enough of hearing about it in every tiring detail (can you tell I’m not horse mad?).
Unlike Faith, Siena wasn’t a life-changing and unforgettable experience for me. But Dying for Siena had a charming lightheartedness that left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling – and the wish to hop in my car to visit beautiful Italy and its wonderful flair again. Not the worst thing I can say about a book.