Book Review: Secrets of the Tower by Debbie Rix

Title: Secrets of the Tower
Author: Debbie Rix
Publication Date: 20th March 2015
Pulisher: Bookouture
Genre: Historical Fiction
Twitter: @debbierix and @Bookouture

Pisa, 1999

Sam Campbell sits by her husband’s hospital bed. Far from home and her children, she must care for Michael who is recovering from a stroke. A man she loves deeply. A man who has been unfaithful to her.

Alone and in need of distraction, Sam decides to pick up Michael’s research into the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Immersing herself in the ancient city, she begins to piece together the mystery behind the creation of the tower, and discovers the woman that history forgot…

Pisa, 1171
Berta di Bernardo, the wife of a rich merchant, sits in her chamber, dressing for a dinner party. A gathering that will change the course of her life and that of a young master mason, Gerardo, forever.

A strong, intelligent woman, Berta’s passion for architecture also draws her to Gerardo. As she embarks on a love affair, her maid Aurelia also becomes spellbound by the same man. Yet for Berta, her heart’s desire is to see the Tower built, and her determination knows no bounds…

What They Say:

An epic story of love, passion and a remarkable legacy.

Set between modern-day and 12th Century Pisa, this is an extraordinary novel which tells the story behind the creation of one of the most iconic buildings in the world.

Beautifully written, Secrets of the Tower brings to life the woman that history forgot – Berta di Bernardo. Without her, would the tower ever have been built?

A richly drawn and absorbing novel that will delight fans of Victoria Hislop, Tracy Chevalier and Kate Furnivall.


The candles sputtered their last, and the sky glowed violet through to pink as the sun began its journey across the sky. A cart rumbled noisily past, its wheels clattering, crashing into the quiet of the early morning, drowning out the birds who had embarked on their morning ritual. She had worked at the table all night, and was looking at a revolutionary vision of a tower which soared out of the ground like a delicate woven column.

‘Like a piece of Venetian Lace’ she murmured as she rolled the vellum and placed it carefully in the big oak chest.

And blowing out the candles, she took herself, finally, to bed.

Buy Links:

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Thank you to NetGalley and Bookouture for providing me with a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Whilst I have to admit that I am not the biggest reader of historical fiction, I thought this was a truly wonderful book! The story involves history, love, romance, betrayal, jealousy and tragedy, all packaged up in an incredibly beautiful and poignant tale.

This is the story of the great mystery behind the leaning tower of Pisa. It is a fictional account based on factual evidence, tying the loose ends of history together and filling in the gaps to create a believable version of the tale which may be behind that mystery. Whilst this is a work of fiction, Rix explains at the end of the book that the historical characters are based on names/people from that period and the story is her version of who those people might have been.

For me, the story strikes just the right balance between the overlapping modern day and historical stories. We start with the story of Sam, who finds herself in Pisa, Italy in 1999 researching the history behind the Pisa’s famous leaning tower. She discovers the name ‘Berta di Bernardo’ and starts to wonder what role she played in the building of the tower. The story then turns back to the 12th century and gives us the story of Berta.

Historically, the story was fascinating and must have taken a huge amount of research by Rix in order to provide such a believable explanation for the mystery surrounding the famous tower. In fact, the historical parts of the book proved to be my favourite and I could have spent a lot longer reading about the lives of those 12th century characters.

The book is beautifully written, the writing style is so very descriptive and yet easy to read. I felt myself lost in the 12th century world created by Rix. The streets of Pisa were brought to life for me and I felt as though I really understood what it was like to live in that time and that place.

The main characters are Sam and Berta, two women living in completely different eras. Sam is a talented and capable person who realises that in becoming a mother and housewife, she has become a shadow of her former self and, as a result, is in danger of losing her marriage. I liked Sam, however I did not particularly warm to her husband, David, and felt as though if she were to stay with him she may be simply ‘settling’ rather than finding someone worthy of her. Berta, by comparison, is a feisty character. Whilst, on the face of it, she is the pampered wife of a rich man, Berta is actually a strong, educated and independent woman living in a time where women have little worth. She is a forceful and very complex character, full of passion for her young lover, Gerardo, and her need to succeed in a male-dominated world, whilst proving herself capable of acting in a very cold and calculating fashion in order to achieve her ends. The supporting historical characters were fascinating, including amongst others, Violetta the apothecary, Gerardo the young mason, Aurelia the maid and Diotisalvi the famous architect. Gerardo is be a likeable character, torn between his older benefactor and an innocent young girl, loving and appreciating both in totally different ways. I was not initially so keen on Aurelia as I felt that her actions felt like those of a spoilt child, however I quickly realised that she would have been, in fact, little more than a child and her actions are therefore in keeping with her age and maturity levels.

The story is set in a charming and magical location of Pisa, Italy. I love Italy and, feeling that I have now learnt more about Pisa, this has been added to my list of places that I would like to visit.

I was surprised to read that this is Rix’s debut novel. She certainly has a talent for storytelling and I would be happy to recommend this book to anyone, whether fans of historical fiction or not. In fact, I’ll shortly be popping over to my favourite online book store to source a copy for my mum, as I know she will absolutely love this book!

Secrets of the Tower really captured my heart and my imagination. It was beautifully written and a fascinating story and I really hope that Rix has another book in the making as I cannot wait to read more from this talented storyteller.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

About the Author

Debbie Rix began her career at the BBC where she was a presenter on the BBC’s Breakfast Time before moving to present a variety of factual programmes. She is now a Communications Consultant, specialising in the charitable sector.

Secrets of the Tower is inspired by Debbie’s own story: her husband, a television producer, had a stroke whilst making a film for Channel 4 about the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the 1990s. The novel also reflects her love of architecture – an interest which is hard-wired into her DNA as both her parents were architects. Many of the historical characters featured are based on real people.

Debbie is in her early 50s and has two teenage children.

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