A few months ago I received an e-mail from a publicist for Anasi Press (which is owned by Harper Collins), asking me whether I’d be interested in receiving a copy of a new book titled The Legacy of Grazi dei Rossi.

Since I never turn down an offer of a free book, I gladly accepted, although I knew nothing about this particular book. In the original e-mail though, it was explained that the  book was a sequel to an earlier book titled The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi. That book, the e-mail went on to note, “was a huge hit commercially when it was published 18 years ago.”
(In fact, I later learned that The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi was the very first title chosen by Indigo Books owner Heather Reisman as a “Heather’s pick”.)
The e-mail also provided some more information about the author of The Legacy of Grazi dei Rossi, Jacqueline Park: “Jackie came to writing novels very late in life - born in Winnipeg in 1925 she became a local singing sensation with her partner Monty Hall (the future host of Let’s Make a Deal), at nineteen she was offered a job by John Grierson at the NFB. This began her career in film, she worked for years writing scripts and after moving to New York she was one of the founders of the dramatic writing program at NYUs Tisch School for the Arts, where she is still professor emerita.

“She is currently living in Toronto, where she writes almost every day with the help of an assistant. She has macular degeneration – but is determined to finish the third book in her series. She is full of wisdom and hope about the third book, as well as about ageing in general. She is sharp, funny (and in my opinion) the epitome of aging gracefully.”

Upon further investigation, I found out even more about Jacqueline Park. The following is taken from a Globe and Mail profile of her that appeared in November of last year: ‘The only child of Russian-Jewish parents, she was born Jacqueline Rosen in 1925 in Winnipeg, a tough town soon made tougher by the Depression. When her father, a jeweller, went broke, the family moved into the city’s Royal Alexandra Hotel. “My father had a deal with the hotel,” she recalls. “I subsequently discovered that the deal that my father had is that he was running a bookmaking establishment on the second floor.” Yet Park reflects on those years almost wistfully, as if she enjoyed a Manitoban version of Eloise in the Plaza Hotel. “It certainly wasn’t a hardship on me. They let me run the elevators. I would go downstairs and I would work the switchboard. It was a big playpen for me.” ’

Now, none of the foregoing really matters – except that it gives somewhat of a better idea who Jacqueline Park is. Honestly, I don’t like to research an author’s background prior to reading his or her book, but if a book really intrigues me I often attempt to know a great deal more about the author following my reading of the book.
In the case of The Legacy of Grazi dei Rossi, the further I plunged into the book, the more impressed I became with the research that accompanied the writing of this book. Set for the most part in 16th Century Istanbul, not only is The Legacy of Grazi dei Rossi a rollicking good yarn, it offers a fascinating look at the Ottoman Empire at its peak, under the legendary Suleiman the Magnificent. (As an aside, for me the name “Suleiman” is one that I will always associate with the wall that surrounds the Old City of Jerusalem, as years ago I learned that it was Suleiman who built that wall.)
The story in The Legacy of Grazi dei Rossi centres around a young boy, Danilo del Medigo, whose Italian-born father Judah, has become physician to Suleiman. Danilo is also the son of Grazia dei Rossi (I’m going to have to read that book now!), but we learn fairly quickly that Danilo’s birth father is not Judah, but a Christian knight. (That probably explains Danilo’s blonde hair and blue eyes.)
Danilo is enrolled in the harem school where Suleiman’s own children are students, including the vivacious Princess Saida.
Naturally, Saida and Danilo become devoted friends and, as they enter into puberty, something more than mere friends. Yet, given the mores of the period, expecting them to consummate their friendship would have been far-fetched, and Park does a terrific job describing the frustration of adolescent love that cannot be taken to its logical conclusion.
As the story unfolds, Danilo assumes a special place in the Sultan’s heart, notwithstanding the fact he is a Jew. The tolerance and respect that Suleiman exhibits towards both Danilo and Judah is admirable. Considering this is a work of fiction, I am motivated to read more about Suleiman to see whether he was quite the noble figure that Park makes him out to be.
Somewhere toward the middle of the book the plot evolves from Danilo and Saida’s friendship to Danilo’s role as a page and translator for Suleiman as he accompanies the Sultan on a military expedition against the Persians. This part of the book is full of fascinating details about daily life in the Ottoman Empire, including what foods were popular, how armies marched to war, and the relatively benign treatment the Ottomans doled out to conquered nations – so long as those conquered nations behaved themselves! Of course, if one did become troublesome, it was taken for granted that heads would be lopped off.
Along the way we learn a great deal about the Kurds, for instance, and their history, We also learn about the actual origins of the Ottomans. I didn’t know that they originally hailed from the Far East and were nomads who realized there was more to be gained by ambushing caravans than tending to their herds.
The story does conclude with Danilo embarking on a new journey – one that apparently will form the basis of author Park’s next novel, which she is now in the process of writing.
The Legacy of Grazi dei Rossi is both a thoroughly entertaining adventure and a love story, set in a time and a place about which most of us have probably heard very little. I might also suggest that it would be of particular interest to teenage readers, given the important subplot that the relationship between Danilo and Saida plays in the book.
I have read one review of this book though that exhibited a somewhat negative attitude toward the entire genre of “historical fiction”, casting aspersions upon the liberties that writers allow themselves when it comes to depicting historical events. But, if reading a terrific yarn such as The Legacy of Grazi dei Rossi might lead one to do further investigation of a period in history that would otherwise likely be ignored, then the book has served a very useful purpose. I can’t say that I find Suleiman’s palace all that alluring myself, but reading about the life of the harem women (and what they did to make themselves attractive) – now that was an eye-opener!

The Legacy of Grazi dei Rossi.
By Jacqueline Park
House of Anasi Press, Toronto,
Published 2014
491 pages