is a strange soufflé--half mystery and half squib on American innocence and European experience. In Brooklyn, Lucy Stark, an author's assistant who has "come to prefer liberty to passion," despairs over her boss's latest manuscript. "DV's books were always awful, but what made this one worse than the others was the introduction of a new element, which was bound to boost sales: There was a ghost in the villa. DV had gone gothic." But then the phone rings, and she learns that DV will scribe no more, having died under strange circumstances in Ugolino. At least his demise will afford Lucy a vacation of sorts--a stay in Tuscany so that she can identify his body, sort through his effects, and perhaps divine the cause of his death.
Of course, from the moment her plane lands, she suffers from cultural disorientation, and worse. Why, exactly, is her handsome if humorless chauffeur, Massimo, so solicitous? Why is DV's villa in fact a farmhouse? And are its proprietors, the Cinis, conspiring to keep her from the truth? Then there are Lucy's Nancy Drew-like discoveries--a terrifying drawing of DV and a mysterious love letter. And is the scratching at the walls a sign from DV's ghost or something more quotidian? All in all, our heroine can't sort out hallucination from Italian provocation, which is all too much for someone who has long prided herself on her clear sight.
Though Valerie Martin's seventh novel has its share of stomach-clenching moments, it is most successful in its many comic scenes (not something this talented author has hitherto been known for). Whether Lucy is trying to break through Massimo's defenses or get to the bottom of the Cinis' behavior, she is usually miles from the truth. Meanwhile, Martin offers up a host of memorable minor figures, from DV's ultrasophisticated New York publisher to the quail-consuming, epigram-spouting Antonio Cini, who gets most of the good lines. When Lucy tells him that she's forever in Massimo's debt, he languidly responds: "Forever, that must be a tiresome sensation." Though Italian Fever is never in the least tiresome, its biggest mystery is how Martin--who has written so strikingly of possession in The Great Divorce--is here far stronger on satire than the supernatural. --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
The reality-distorting fever that afflicts the i-dotting, t-crossing Lucy StarkAa plainish Brooklyn woman who finds herself embroiled in the creepy intrigues of the aristocratic Cini familyAenvelops her mere days after she arrives in northern Italy, and barely breaks before this upmarket gothic novel comes to closure. Lucy's delirium makes her likely to misinterpret all the things that go bump in the night, and yet when the lights come on at the novel's end, nearly all the ghouls shrink into shadows. In Tuscany on rather strange businessAher employer, a popular and formulaic fiction writer named DV, has drunkenly met his death by falling down a well on the Cini propertyALucy becomes suspicious of the Cinis' byzantine ways and their dodginess on the subject of the American painter Catherine Bultman, whom Lucy assumed had been living as DV's lover in the house he rented on the Cini grounds. With her temperature steadily rising, Lucy rifles through DV's belongings and finds an amorous letter to Catherine, written in Italian and signed Antonio. Thinking she has uncovered a valuable clueAAntonio is the name of the seedy scion of the Cini lineALucy begins to make more pointed inquiries about Catherine's whereabouts and the circumstances of her departure. She is waylaid in her investigation by her illness, however, and by the equally damaging and consuming affair she begins with the married Roman hunk named Massimo who nurses her back to health. Besides being a born-again passionate, Lucy is an art enthusiast; Martin's knowledge of iconography and hagiography adds an intellectual dimension to the romantic plot. Martin also describes the food in Tuscany and Rome luxuriouslyAif sometimes with a hungry street urchin's obsessive care. With a few ghosts, several acts of love and numerous jibes at self-indulgent writers of the DV school, the sophisticated romantic adventure is rendered with stylish flair. Martin controls the narrative momentum smoothly and recounts her tale with occasional wryness and engaging enthusiasm. 50,000 first printing.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.