I've been reading Karen Swan's novels for awhile now. They're always delightful but the last few have been a bit...lacking. When I received The Rome Affair a few weeks ago, I read the synopsis and thought: yes. This...this sounds really promising. Happily, I was right. Swan's latest book kept me engaged from the first page to the last and I never wanted to put it down.
Here's the synopsis:
The glamorous capital city of Italy is brought to startling life in The Rome Affair, a compelling summer novel by Karen Swan.
1974 and Elena Damiani lives a gilded life. Born to wealth and a noted beauty, no door is closed to her, no man can resist her. At twenty-six, she is already onto her third husband when she meets her love match. But he is the one man she can never have, and all the beauty and money in the world can't change it.
2017 and Francesca Hackett is living la dolce vita in Rome, leading tourist groups around the Eternal City and forgetting the ghosts she left behind in London. When she finds a stolen designer handbag in her dustbin and returns it, she is brought into the orbit of her grand neighbour who lives across the piazza - famed socialite Viscontessa Elena dei Damiani Pignatelli della Mirandola. Though the purse is stolen, Elena greets the return of the bag with exultation for it contains an unopened letter written by her husband on his deathbed, twelve years earlier.
Mutually intrigued by each other, the two women agree to collaborate on a project, with Cesca interviewing Elena for her memoirs. As summer unfurls, Elena tells her sensational stories, leaving Cesca in her thrall. But when a priceless diamond ring found in an ancient tunnel below the city streets is ascribed to Elena, Cesca begins to suspect a shocking secret at the heart of Elena's life.
The Rome Affair, happily, did what The Paris Secret (Swan's summer 2016 novel) could not. It kept me interested and turning the pages as quick as I could to see exactly how the mystery was going to unfold. Just when you thought you knew how it all turned out, Swan revealed another detail that had you doubting everything. So. Good.
Plus, the actual mystery with all the twists and turns and secrets hidden throughout the years? It will make your head spin at the end. It actually took me awhile of sitting and thinking after I finished it to get a handle on what the hell had just happened and to start to understand the motivation of the characters. I couldn't figure out where Swan was going with most of the story, which was awesome. There was only one thing I had nailed down and that was why Elena had finally decided to have her biography written. The rest? Total mystery.
Elena was a riveting character. Swan managed to write such a larger than life character without having her become a caricature. Because her life? Was insane. She was a wealthy American heiress who eventually became an Italian princess. She partied with Andy Warhol and was friends with Elizabeth Taylor. How could you not be intrigued?
Cesca was interesting as well, with her own secret, but she served more as a way to get at Elena's story than another protagonist. That was ok, surprisingly enough. But she was such a wicked smart woman that she did manage to shine enough beside Elena. I do wish Swan had managed to write her as a stronger character with an equally riveting story though. Elena and her long and full life overshadowed Cesca a bit, not surprisingly. Random aside: I appreciated that Cesca was tall (though at 5'10" she's still 2" shorter than I am) because there aren't nearly enough female characters who are that tall. It's a small thing but it's something you notice when you're super tall as well! Plus, the fact that Cesca was a blogger too was pretty cool. Oh, and if you wonder exactly what a barrister is (like I was because I'm not British), allow Google to help: "a lawyer entitled to practice as an advocate, particularly in the higher courts".
The Rome Affair is a great book for the summer because it's such an engaging read with so much depth. Plus, it's based in such an interesting and glamorous city. You might not be in Rome but, sitting on the beach with Karen Swan's latest book in hand, you can pretend to be, at least for a little while.
*An ARC was provided by the distributor, Publisher's Group Canada, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*