A romantic and supernatural thriller for young adults, set in contemporary and Renaissance Venice
When seventeen year-old Allegra steals the charmed necklace, she finds herself sucked into a vortex of passion and obsession that reaches back into pre-history. All she knows is that once she’s seen the beads, they have to be hers.
Something has drawn her to the city of Venice, home of her father’s family. Waiting for her there are an ancient curse, and a boy called Leo. She joins a chain of lovers whose desire for the beautiful other has been repeated through the generations, leading each time to a death. Interwoven with her story is the tale of sixteenth century artist’s apprentice Tollo and his doomed love for Olivia, his master’s model and mistress.
The plot follows a week in February – also Carnival time – when Ali visits her English Great-Aunt Deirdre, widow of her father’s uncle, the only member of his family who still lives in Venice. Through Signor Orazio, a friend of Deirdre’s who deals in art and runs holiday courses for young people, she meets Leo, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen”.
From the beginning there are hints of something dark in Ali’s family past, which may explain their abandonment of the city. It comes to the surface early on when she sees the Renaissance portrait known as the Girl with the Olives. Her curiosity is aroused when Orazio tells her that Olivia – the Girl in the picture – is her ancestor. She finds herself irresistibly drawn towards her and the necklace she wears. What she does not know is that one of the beads was made in prehistoric times as a love charm, and it carries a curse.
She comes upon the actual necklace in a gallery where it has been on exhibition, and runs off with it. Almost immediately she regrets what she’s done, but returning the beads proves impossible. First she can’t find the location, then when she does the gallery is closed and empty. Finally she loses the beads.
Meanwhile a relationship is growing between her and Leo, but she can’t believe he’s attracted to her. She keeps insisting to herself that it’s just a friendship. He finds the necklace she dropped, but she’s too ashamed to tell him where it came from. They quarrel over the beads, and a shadow falls over their relationship.
Interwoven with their tale is the story of Tollo, apprenticed to the artist who painted the portrait of Olivia. The boy watches helplessly as the necklace leads to her death. His story is connected to Ali’s through paintings which survive from his time, and through the finding of Olivia’s skeleton in a disused well.
The contemporary plot comes to a climax at a masked ball, where Ali follows Leo to the roof tops and risks death by falling. The curse is averted when he persuades her to relinquish the charmed bead.
There is also a gleam of hope at the end of Tollo’s story. We learn that he will grow up to become the renowned artist Colorozzo whose paintings appear throughout the novel, and his love for Olivia finds a new object when he discovers the baby daughter she left behind.
Ali is left with a greater understanding of herself, and the realisation that a real life relationship with Leo is possible.
Inspired by Harold Monro’s poem Overheard in a Saltmarsh, Better than Stars is a novel about beauty, passion and self discovery.