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Welcome to the VERANDA Sip & Read Book Club! Each month, we dive in to a book and offer exclusive conversations with the authors behind each tale over on Instagram, along with a perfectly matched cocktail. This month's pick is Christine Mangan's Palace of the Drowned, a story of intrigue, literary obsession, and off-season Venice in the 1960s. Get caught up on our past book club selections here.
The year is 1966, and since the defeat of Napoleon, Venice has been a city in disrepair. It is also, like the main character of Palace of the Drowned, on the brink of something. But is it a restoration of glory or a final unraveling, a quietly grand fraying apart at the seams?
This is the question Frances "Frankie" Croy mulls as she arrives in Venice in 1966 with her luggage and pride, the latter decimated by an anonymous review of her fourth novel that sent her reeling straight into a very public scandal at a literary event in London. Trying to head off legal action and further tabloid fodder, Frankie does a short stint in an asylum and then heads to her best friend Jack's vacant Venetian palazzo, ostensibly to recuperate her backsliding writing career by putting pen to paper and delivering her editor the final manuscript of her contract, but also to nurse the wounded pride that caused the scandal in the first place.
The palazzo has a name: Palazzo d'Affagata. "Like the dessert?" Frankie asks Jack, who pauses, then explains that the name is translated roughly to Palace of the Drowned, a mistranslation surely, Jack hurries on, but the name had stuck and subsequent owners shrugged it off. The home even used to have its very own gondolier, but even the gondola is dilapidated now, a reflection of the city Frankie has landed in, and she's doubtful the smelly, moss-covered ruins of this water-logged city will revive her words or spirit. To add to this, Frankie becomes increasingly convinced that there's someone living in the neighboring apartment, despite Jack's insistence that it's empty. She can't shake the prickling sensation that she's being watched.
As Frankie wiles away her days walking the calles and campos, waiting for Jack to join her, she begins to wrestle with her past and the actions that have led to her current state. Surprisingly, "in Venice, the past began to slip away from her, like a slow trickle of water." She begins to contemplate her next novel.
Then she meets "the girl."
The introduction sets Frankie on edge. She "was alone, in a city that was still largely unknown to her, when she felt that hand clasp onto her wrist, fingers tightening in a way that made her body go slack with fear." As quick as a blink, the Waspish, twenty-something Gilly has half-charmed, half-wormed her way into Frankie's life. She reminds Frankie of herself in her youth, self-assured and certain in a way that sets her apart, and while she can't shake the unsettled feeling followed the girl's introduction (did Frankie really know her from a previous meeting? Why couldn't she place it?), she also can't seem to stand up to Gilly and turn down her repeated invites to coffee, to the opera, to the market.
By the time Jack and her husband, Leonard, arrive at the palazzo, Frankie has developed a somewhat-friendship with Gilly, even as she grows increasingly certain of Gilly's half-truths and subterfuge. A precarious dance unfolds, Gilly pressing in and Frankie eyeing her apprehensively, desperate to maintain her mental sanity during an already precarious time. When the girl suddenly reveals that she's also a writer, just as Frankie is on the cusp of finishing her next novel, Frankie's suspicions rise to the surface—at the very moment Venice's temperamental waters surge.
And as the rain-swollen tides threaten the city's very existence (leading to the historic 1966 flood, with an estimated net economic loss of roughly 400 million euros), Venice itself becomes a palazzo d'affagata: of literary ambition, of friendships, of the very sanity for which Frankie desperately grasps.
As the waters crest the walls, the lives of Frankie and Gilly twist and turn, forever altered by the moment—and their actions. Mangan's writing is crisp at one turn and slippery at the next, as she expertly imagines a city and narrator on simultaneous brinks, marked memories of their past grandeur as they attempt to construct futures just as rarified. The result is a page-turning thriller with a setting just as well imagined as the characters who inhabit it.
VERANDA SIP & READ BOOK CLUB FOR JUNE 2021
Selection: Palace of the Drowned by Christine Mangan (available via local booksellers, Amazon, or Bookshop)
Start reading with us June 1.
Send Mangan your questions via VERANDA's Instagram Stories.
Tune in to Instagram as Mangan answers your questions and chats live about Palace of the Drowned later this month.
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