Naomi Ragen, . . St. Martin's/Griffin, $14.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-312-28125-0

Opulent prose, brave female characters and an emphasis on the importance of family and tradition distinguish the latest from bestselling Ragen (Jephte's Daughter). Catherine da Costa is a wealthy New York matron, secure in everything but the future. Having just learned she is to die soon, she fears the family tree will perish as well, since her two 20-something granddaughters, Suzanne and Francesca, are as yet unmarried. Then one night she is visited by a ghost from the distant past—her eponymous Renaissance ancestor—who urges Catherine to search for the missing pages of a manuscript she wrote. The text is a precious document detailing how, as a Sephardic Jew, she braved the terrors of the Inquisition and went on to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world. Using her own impending demise as emotional blackmail, Catherine sends the oil-and-water duo of Suzanne and Francesca—one devoted to liberal causes, the other to business—to Europe to hunt for the pages. Their journey leads to globe-trotting adventure, passionate romance, sibling reconciliation and a disclosure of Hannah's secrets for survival: endurance and faith. The fact that the Nasi-Mendes family is real, with descendants all over the world, adds depth to the fiction, and Ragen uses harrowing descriptions of torture to explain how family members could be forced to turn against one another to avoid the worst of the Inquisition. Moreover, she succeeds in driving home her message about the value of hanging onto cultural identity through maintaining a connection with history, thereby giving a sense of meaning to the present. Fans of her previous work will not be disappointed. Agent, Lisa Bankoff at ICM. (Nov.)