Archive for June 18th, 2022

An enchanting ironic romance occurring in Tuscany

This is the cover of the audio book

Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo in the Galleria Borghese in Rome — to which our heroine, Lucy Stark, comes, is riveted by & comments on

An enchanting ironic romance occurring in Tuscany

Dear friends and readers,

While I have for a few years now made a point of writing blog-reviews of summer movies (Mr Holmes Puck and Mr Rogers), or movies that uplift you (Luxor, Oliver Sacks, Dig) I’ve rarely talked of a summer book or summer reading, except it be linked to a movie (David Nicholls’s Us). So a new venture.

I feel a bit awkward also because Valerie Martin is one of the US’s finest novelists, an anti-southern southern novelist and has not gained the kind of recognition that she should — except as a writer of a sequel or post-text to Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in her Mary Reilly. I should be writing of her powerful Orange Prize winner, Property, a historical novel taking place in 19th century New Orleans, a nightmarish book focusing on a plantation wife (white) and her black slave, one that brings before us in such a concise form what a society where one group of people are said to own another and treat them as not human; or The Great Divorce, about the intermingling of people with animals apparently lost in our modern world. I know I like her for her concern for non-human animals (see her Consolation of Nature stories). She has written a trio of children’s books about two cat friends, Anton and Cecil. Once I have read one of her books the memory of the emotional experience stays with me, even if I lose the details.

Like these two, several others novels and two books of short stories are too complicated to present as a frame to a deceptively light simple Northanger Abbey tale — Italian Fever belongs to a Jane Austen blog because Italian Fever among other things alludes to NA, and like it and Atwood’s Lady Oracle (she has been a close friend to Margaret Atwood — see wikipedia), is both a gothic and a parody of a gothic, self-reflexively ironizing detective fiction, erotic romance (Lucy’s love-making with the beautiful imperturbable, expert in pleasurable sex, Massimo brings to mind Gabaldon’s Clare Randall and Jamie Fraser); an adult new awakening or coming-of-age (Lucy’s name alludes to E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeycombe; also his Where Angels Fear to Tread). There is something here of Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever. Wisps of Henry James’s Daisy Miller

This is the Italian cover, which reminds me of a scene from Andrew Davies’ 2009 adaptation of Austen’s Northanger Abbey

Why the novel is deceptively light is that story continually skirts the traumas and violence of the female gothic, a story of an author who may have killed himself because he spent his life alone writing terrible books that sell to mass audiences, or who may have been murdered, and is now haunting old Tuscan villas as a ravaged ghost. The way in which these are skirted are a kind of sleight of hand where our skillful author has this or that Italian character Lucy is meeting for the first time, simply refuse to discuss something, or slip away with a promise to be back soon and in the meantime leave the heroine in a splendid restaurant eating yummy food with other people, or a museum, or a place just tucked away in a beautiful countryside (Brescia) or city (Rome). Lucy is remarkable adaptable and allows herself to be taken over by others, who hold their fire or danger in check, and turn out not to be willing to bother to hurt her. It’s not worth it. Why torture a kitten?

Only Lucy is not a kitten. She is a thoughtful now divorced young editor who has been working for DV, who, when he dies, is given the assignment of going to Italy, to bring back his manuscripts and deal with his agents in Italy, also see what happened. DV is said to have fallen down a well. To have been a depressive. The relationship of the back family with our protagonist reminds me of Peter Cameron’s City of our Final Destination, only Lucy does not end up embedding herself in the new dead author’s family, but escaping (like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz) back home, having had her wondrous experience. The way the suddenly magical places turn up reminded me especially of Mary Poppins; for each is compartmentalized; Lucy gets to return to wherever her bedchamber is to rest between bouts of investigation. But like Catherine Morland, repeatedly she finds she was under an illusion, and the glamor or idealism or anger/revenge as a motive she was attributing to someone is no such thing. Something far plainer: like being a rather cold opportunist explains DV’s mistress, a painter now living in Rome.

As with a couple of Martin’s other novels, there is much ekphrasis in this book; Lucy encounters famous and imagined works of art. Not infrequently they give rise to feminist interpretations on the part of Lucy, which when she describes her ideas to other people, they seem not to hear. So Bernini’s statue of Daphne and Apollo is not about love, but an attempted rape. That’s consensus, but Lucy does not remain with that. She says look at the terrified look in Daphne’s eye. Far from preferring to escape into stone treehood, she wanted a tender loving man — which role Massimo plays: like Suzanne Juhasz says in her studies of women’s novels, Reading from the Heart, the archetype behind favored strong lovers makes him a combination of sex partner and mother. She is erotically attracted to Bernini’s David, wishes she had the wit of Paulina Borghese, whose sculpture by Canova evokes a memory of story that when Pauline was asked how she could pose, she asked, why not? the room is heated. Other paintings and statues and landscape evoke from Lucy the evolving story of an novelist’s life. Martin herself married for a second time an Italian man, lived with him in Italy for a time. She visits Sansepolcro, and looking about the town and art work, especially that of Piero Della Francesco, the man she is with tells her of what his life as a visual artist (painter) has been.

A detail from Della Francesco’s Resurrection — Lucy looks at another imagined Resurrection, an image of Christ

She describes her clothes in comical insightful ways — deconstructing as it were how women are constructed by the clothes so as to offer their bodies for display, will she or nill she: “she spent the evening with the unsettling sensation she was standing behind her breasts, as if she was presenting them for inspection.” Enchanting meals, the most tasteful of old buildings, people who offer wise advice and mean no harm — except they sort of have something to hide, which after all Lucy never finds out. Cultural analysis of Italian lives is part of the mix. Never mind. She is perhaps better off not to know, for there is a dangerous world behind the curtain she could probably do nothing about, nor know what to do, being just a little naive.

The book is beautifully written: Martin’s control of style in each of her books is pitch perfect to what she wants to convey of a time (she has several historical novels), character, genre, type story. Like one of her favorite authors, R. L. Stevenson, she captures you with her language. The voice of Mary Reilly belongs to a nineteenth century servant writing her diary. Lucy’s is the voice of a (singularly lucky) young woman out on a summer adventure. I read it so compulsively, so enjoyed the irony, romance and descriptions, that I have written this blog.

Valerie Martin (recent photo)


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