I truly expected to like The Stargazer. I specifically requested to review it after seeing the promos for it on Amazon. The lovely cover, hardcover packaging, and author biography (she has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature of the Renaissance from Harvard) led me to expect a well-plotted historical novel set in a largely overlooked time period.
As soon as I read the first chapter, I realized I was in for a more typical historical romance plot. Ian Foscari, emotionally scarred and distrustful after a previous affair with a scheming woman, finds spunky sort-of doctor Bianca Salva leaning over the dead body of a courtesan. She is holding a knife with his family crest on it. For credulity-stretching reasons, he decides to force her to pose as his fiancée for several weeks, despite the fact that each initially suspects the other of the murder
A tortured hero, a feisty heroine, a pretend engagement – well, I thought, there’s still hope for something new and different in this treatment of standard plot elements. Besides, there’s a decent murder mystery, and the unusual setting.
Ah, but no. The plot quickly disintegrates into a lot of running around and arguing with no apparent motivation. The pair’s “detective” work is truly ludicrous, especially considering that they are portrayed as enthusiasts of science. Yet one minute Bianca will decide that such a tender lover could not possibly be a murderer, and the next Ian decides that surely she’s guilty because she leaves the house without his permission. By the time they stumble over the actual murderer, I had lost all track of the so-called logic behind their deductions and cared even less.
I was also disgusted by Ian as a hero. Bianca was awfully silly and muddle-headed for someone who is supposed to be smart enough to have educated herself to be a doctor, but Ian was just a creep. Aside from his skills as a lover (and the love scenes were pretty good, I admit) he’s an emotionally closed-off idiot who constantly leaps to repulsive conclusions about Bianca and would not dream of asking a simple question – or believing the answers. This is a true love? Worst of all, he has two semi-psychotic interludes during which he nearly commits rape and later almost gets someone killed. The author’s attempt to portray Ian as a tortured hero fails because he comes off looking like crazed, petulant jerk.
What did I like? Well, I still like the setting, although I wish the author had concentrated more on the fascinating political intrigues of the time rather than all the running around. And there are some curious absences, like the Church. It was the most powerful religious and political institution in Italy at that time, yet never makes one appearance in The Stargazer aside from Bianca’s silly swearing by various saints’ body parts.
Two other small points in the book’s favor are the sometimes humorous descriptions, and the other brothers, all of whom seemed likelier heroes than nasty Ian (and will probably turn up in books of their own one day). If Ms. Jaffe can work these elements into a believable plot that hangs together, she may have a book worth reading.
This one isn’t it, however. It’s rather amazing that such a standard, even substandard historical romance was published in hardcover. If you are truly curious, I recommend waiting for the paperback, and in the meantime use the money you save to buy two or three midlist paperbacks by stronger, more deserving authors.