Our book today is 2005’s The Last Time I Saw Venice, by the indomitable Australian romance novelist Vivienne Wallington, a former librarian who wrote some twenty romances for Mills & Boon under the pen-name of Elizabeth Duke and then did a stint writing Silhouette romances for Harlequin under her own name, this one being (so far as I can tell) the last thing she’s written. It’s a torrid, tense tale that typifies one of the many motifs of fiction set in the Floating City: in this case, Venice as Scenery. This is by far the most popular of all the sub-flora of Venetian fiction, for understandable reasons – foremost being, it beats Akron. In Venice as Scenery novels, the main landmarks of the place are invoked with more or less mechanical duty, and the story’s participants might occasionally refer to indigenous “magic,” but they’ll spend the length of the plot so caught up in their own passions that you get the distinct impression they could be anywhere and not really care. The city is backdrop only, an easy way to add some picturesque color to the goings-on. Modern authors can’t really be faulted for writing this kind of Venice-story, since the pedigree for it is about as exalted as you can get: Shakespeare never a Venice story that wasn’t a Venice as Scenery story.

Wallington is no Shakespeare, naturally, but in The Last Time I Saw Venice she’s nevertheless at the height of her own powers. She’s an author who very much knows what she’s about – like most Mills & Boon veterans, she’s not exactly a complex plotter, and she lays on the tension with a trowel, and (again like Shakespeare, come to think of it) she never met a bald coincidence she didn’t like. She employs every trick of her trade in this headlong story about ambitious young attorney Annabel Hanson, who visited Venice four years ago, stood on her gondola-seat to get a good photo, fell into the Grand Canal, and was saved from its cold green water by Simon Pacino, a broad-shouldered black-haired blue-eyed Greek god of a man. A few moments’ conversation (all they allowed themselves before the clothes started flying off) revealed that they were both from Australia – he was a ‘top’ neurosurgeon in the same way she was a ‘top’ lawyer, and although they were both work-obsessed yuppies, they gave themselves over to the carnal abandon Venice tends to encourage. Simon’s condom broke, he convinced Annabel to keep the baby (at this point the Romney/Ryan team stopped reading), and in due time their daughter Lily arrived. Despite their overwhelming commitment to their jobs, they loved her – and were thus devastated when she was hit in her pram by a runaway car a year later (Annabel blamed herself for not being quick enough to snatch her out of the car’s path; Simon blamed himself because she died on the operating table – his operating table)(as mentioned, Wallington doesn’t kid around).

Years later, they meet in Venice by chance, where each has plenty of opportunity to reflect on just how quick they’d been to leap into marriage in the first place, as Annabel thinks:

It made her realize soberly how little she knew about the man she’d married. They’d both been such high-powered, single-minded workaholics, even after Lily had arrived, that they’d barely had time to talk about the things that had happened to them in the past, before they’d met. Simon’s past in particular – other than the career path, and the fact that his father had walked out on his family – had always been a closed book.

As for his part, Simon is no more certain about what all this means:

What better place to rediscover romance than here in romantic Venice, where they’d first found it? Maybe he should think no further than that … romancing her, wooing her all over again, rediscovering the passion they’d lost. Maybe even embarking on a romantic second honeymoon, to revive the old magic, the old chemistry, before they had to leave Venice and face reality again.

The couple enjoy plenty of Venetian food and wine, and they wait in line to see plenty of Venetian museums and masterpieces, but it’s all background noise – they’re ruling concern from the book’s opening scene is personal and tightly focused. As is universally the case with Venice as Scenery stories, the city is colorfully but lifelessly evoked, and our lovers leave it without any hesitation when their passions waft them in some other direction. The cynical old marketing guys at Harlequin could just as easily have picked Toledo or London or Sydney, for all the difference it would have made to Annabel or Simon.

The effect such stories have is, ironically, to increase the sense of Venice as fantasy place, a glittering faerie-city – good for stirring passion and revelation, but not at all real (the Venice interval in Brideshead Revisited is maybe the quintessential example of this). Those who come to know the city well will agree with the complicit dimensions of this kind of portrayal: Venice is suffused with the sounds of water in motion, so it’s not surprising that romance of all kinds flourishes there. But glorified weekend tourists like Annabel and Simon never get to know the real place – neither they nor all those Harlequin/Mills & Boon readers, one suspects, very much want to.


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