The Stargazer by Michele Jaffe
(Pocket, $18.00, R) ISBN 0-671-02739-5
**
The dust jacket of The Stargazer states that new author Michele Jaffe has a PhD in Comparative Literature of the Renaissance. This no doubt helps her to breathe some life into the setting of this novel -- Venice. But settings alone can't carry a story, and The Stargazer sinks under the weight of a meandering plot and characters who are not only unlikeable, but downright stupid in their actions and thought processes.

Ian Foscari, Conte d'Aosto, receives a note from Isabella Bellochio, a courtesan, requesting his presence at her home. When he arrives, he finds Bianca Salva standing over a bloody body, holding a knife with Ian's family crest on it. Bianca takes one look at Ian's handsome face and decides he couldn't have murdered Isabella. After all, he has a note, purportedly from Isabella, and she knows that Isabella couldn't write. Therefore, someone must be trying to frame Ian. (The fact that Ian could have forged the note himself does not occur to her, which is an indication of her powers of deductive reasoning.)

Ian thinks Bianca may well have murdered Isabella. Or maybe someone is trying to frame him. He decides to take the body to his home, where Bianca, a medical student, will have a chance to examine it for clues. But Bianca can't stay at his home without people becoming suspicious. Aha! He'll announce that they are engaged. Besides, she's beautiful and intriguing. But she's probably a murderer. But maybe she'd be good in bed.

Meanwhile, the real murderer is going to try to bring Ian down -- the intended result all along. Bianca is expendable.

That's the sum total of the plot. What readers are treated to is an entire book of Ian alternately calling Bianca all sorts of vile names and hurling accusations of murder at her head, then dragging her into bed, where they get inventive. What a guy. Bianca, displaying the sort of wishy-washy approach to romance that makes a reader long to smack her, falls for Ian even as he treats her like dirt. Oh, and she also thinks up inventive curses like "S'balls!" and "By Santa Regina's knuckles!" As for her much-vaunted intelligence, she's fairly clueless when it comes to actually solving the crime. Savvy readers will nail it within the first few chapters.

Ultimately, The Stargazer is a simplistic mystery and an unconvincing romance. The settings are described vividly, but Venice is the only interesting thing about the book. I understand there are several more books due out about the Foscari brothers. Unless the author learns how to structure a better plot and create characters worth reading about, they wouldn't entice this reader.

--Cathy Sova


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