Some novels are hard to categorize, and Through a Venetian Looking Glass is one such work that is not easily discussed in a conventional manner. Though most easily listed as a “historical novel,” this work incorporates elements of suspense and tragedy that make for a unique tale, but one that sometimes lacks focus or direction.
The story centers on Jean-Pierre and Claire, a long-married couple who vacation each year in Venice ever since the accidental death of their son several years before. During the most recent trip, the couple discovers a manuscript from the sixteenth century hidden inside the walls of an old building that now provides lodging to guests. As they begin to read the manuscript, the reader discovers a story that is remarkably similar to Jean-Pierre and Claire’s. Thus, the novel becomes an alternating tale between the life events of the manuscript’s author and the life events of Jean-Pierre and Claire. The narrator and Jean-Pierre have suffered similar tragedies, though separated by five centuries—so much so that there seems to be an odd connection between them, more so than just the words of one man being read by a kindred spirit. Could it even be that Jean-Pierre is possibly a reincarnation of 16th-century Giovanni Pofoco? With each passing event, though the story never states this, such a possibility seems less incredible.
When Jean-Pierre and Claire take breaks from reading the narrative, the reader is forced to listen to their story in both the present and the past. The far more interesting aspect of this story is how the past that is reconstructed from the memory of the main characters mirrors the past that is reconstructed from the 1500s-era manuscript. Jean-Pierre’s flashbacks to his childhood and his teenage years are continually similar to Pofoco’s and reveal a fascinating coming-of-age story, including how Jean-Pierre met his wife Claire. Their memories of their son’s life are remarkably poignant, and there is notable irony in that their son was killed in a boating accident yet they find solace, not in land-locked mountains, but in a city where the very streets are water.
Walking those streets, though, becomes tedious—even if one were capable of walking on water. Setting is, of course, vitally important to a story, and an understanding of Venice is essential for the two narratives happening here. The city has changed with time, but its function differs depending on the narrator. The Venice of Giovanni is home but a source of conflict and violence. For Jean-Pierre and Claire, Venice is a destination intended to bring relief and sanctuary; however, in the present it becomes violent as well. Thus there is always the sense that the city, as lovely as it is, is deadly. Clearly this presents a fundamental truth about many aspects of life in which one must be aware of the dangers that lurk just on the border of pleasure and beauty.
The imagery presents such beauty, but constant background detail about the city detracts from the story. The repeated descriptions and needless detail about the city’s geography and structure, especially when presented in flowery language, slow the narrative and bore the reader. The present descriptions of Venice are remarkably dull. If Venice is such a unique escape from the modern world, then why have the main characters serve to describe it at length so that the city loses its exotic appeal, the result contradicting the perception of Venice as paradise?
While there is too much context regarding the city, there is not enough to explain the bizarre situation that the main characters are in. Jean-Pierre and Claire are harassed by a man who has essentially been stalking them for the years that they have traveled to Venice. Initially he is presented as only an annoyance. However, this person develops into someone vaguely menacing as his actions and words become notably intense. As the plot moves forward, this vague stalker figure (an American named Waters) tries to interfere with their discovery and education regarding the manuscript. In doing so, he commits reprehensible acts that range in severity. Yet, through all of this, it seems that the characters are content to respond to things after they happen instead of trying to prevent them. This behavior seems irresponsible and not entirely believable, but it does suggest a more major theme of the novel: that of fate and destiny.
After all, are not the startling similarity of events between the past and the present enough to suggest that perhaps it is not all coincidence? Could it be that the cyclic tendency of life and history suggest a pattern of intention by some cosmic force, or at the very least that there is genuinely such a thing as luck? Pofoco, the sixteenth-century manuscript author, repeatedly refers to “fortuna” (the Italian for fortune), and while Jean-Pierre and Claire, with their modern-day beliefs, may be considered too advanced to over-rely on such a notion, they certainly are presented with ample evidence to change their mind. Whether readers will be affected in such a way may well determine the true effectiveness of the novel.