A rebellious Venetian girl is shipped off to a local convent where she at least can't make any more trouble for her noble family. Inside the convent things go from bad to worse and pretty soon the innocent girl is sleeping with invited male 'customers' of the nuns. Quite predictably she gets pregnant by her dashingly interesting stranger. After some final altercations she manages to escape the convent and ends up in London as an actress and spy for hire. We then switch to the perspective (although not in first person) of 18th century master of the London dispensaries by the name of Valentine Greatrakes. A more unbelievable and silly name if I've ever seen. Intrigue ensues. Valentine falls for the actress who turns out to be related to this and the other, they hate each other, miss each other, try to find each other again and again and so on. If you like coincidences then this is one you'll like.
Characters are beyond flat and modeled after what the author thinks current gender stereotypes are, and then projected on 18th century templates. None of the characters is particularly likable, which is not a requirement for a good novel, but they should at least be interesting. Granted the period is rendered in vividly accurate detail, but then again that is what we expect these days from authors. Flat novels are unfortunately also something we've become to expect. The male characters are all single minded and only interested in carnal pleasures. Women are either stunningly graceful or beyond ugly and/or boring, all of them being eternal victims who might also be seen as strong if it weren't for the overwhelming victim mentality portrayed in this book by all female characters.
So then why did I read it? I'm a bit of a sucker for immersive novels, especially those taking place in exotic locations from exciting periods of history. In this particular novel the opening recipes for quack medicines added an additional touch to the text although you quickly find out that the subject of the recipes doesn't have much to do with the contents of the chapter. You know the author got things right, you don't know why specifically but you know. Both London and Venice feel real and appear to be quite genuinely depicted in the appropriate period settings.
All of the world descriptions and depictions work together well on the other hand many of infuriatingly little narrative details stand out and detract from the story. All the female character's chapters are in first person but not the male protagonist. One of the female characters, the daughter of Valentine's best friend Tom, is given a very small amount of chapters to add something useful to the narrative but those fragments make things more confusing than they already are. Supposedly this girl/woman/child is dense and quite selfish. Certainly the selfish part is consistent but if we have to believe the author she is far from stupid. If this is a deliberate touch then nowhere in the rest of the novel does it make sense or fit in.