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Italian Fever: A Novel
ISBN 0375705228 / 9780375705229 / 0-375-70522-8
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Italian Fever 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 [via]