There are two kinds of fever in Valerie Martin's graceful and gently amusing novel, set in Rome and the hills of Tuscany: the shaky, physiological kind and the romantic kind. Martin gives us a little too much of the former; her central character spends a good portion of the book's first third shivering, sweating and hallucinating through a mysterious illness, and its duration seems as interminable for us as it is for her. But once Martin gets to the good stuff -- that character's affair with a handsome, consistently puzzling Italian -- Italian Fever starts to heat up.
Martin's novel is a curious little thing, both an airy diversion (a mystery, a romance and something of a ghost story rolled into one) and a tentative novel of ideas. Her main character, Lucy Stark, works in New York as an assistant to a wildly successful hack novelist known to all as DV. When DV dies suddenly -- he falls, apparently, into a well in Tuscany, where he's been living, working and drinking himself into oblivion -- she's summoned to Italy to settle his affairs. There she meets, and takes an immediate dislike to, the members of the Cini family, the former owners of the house DV had been renting: They live in the neighboring villa, and they seem to hold some of the keys to the mystery of his death. When Lucy later travels to Rome -- coaxed there in the service of amore by her dashing new Italian friend -- she also meets the beautiful and charismatic painter Catherine Bultman, with whom DV had been obsessed before he died. It's up to Lucy to untangle her new acquaintances' intertwined stories and motives.
But of course, Italian Fever is mostly the story of Lucy's self-discovery, and Martin is at her best sketching out the way traveling in a new country -- and, better yet, finding love there -- can bring about a subtly dazzling transformation in a person. Lucy, a little insecure and probably much prettier than she thinks she is, is one of those young women who toil away in the lower levels of the publishing world but are really smarter and more perceptive than most of the people around them. When she first arrives in Italy, she's timid and polite, but when the man who's been assigned as her guide begins bragging about his lineage -- "My family has been in Rome for a thousand years" -- she shows her true colors by volleying with "Any popes?" A fan of Bernini, she makes an effort to see some of the sculptor's work in Rome, and she finds herself moved to tears at the sight of his "Apollo and Daphne," which shows the transformation of Daphne into a laurel tree just as her pursuer reaches out to embrace her:
Apollo, too, was frozen in a moment of revelation.
He couldn't see what was happening, for he was
behind her, in hot pursuit, and he had at last caught
up with her. Everything he knew came to him
through the hand he had slipped about her waist,
which was still flesh, but altered. His expression was
a mixture of triumph -- he had captured her --
shock -- she was not what he thought -- and
something else -- was it sympathy or just
resignation? He was a god himself; this was a game
for him, one he now knew he had lost. Her flesh
beneath his fingers looked soft and impressionable
still. Could he feel the blood thickening to sap, the
convulsions racking her heart, the collapse of her
lungs upon the last gasp of oxygen that would be of
any use to her?
At first Lucy is annoyed with herself because the sculpture reminds her of her own lover; later, she becomes even more despondent when she realizes there's "nothing marvelous in her appreciation of this work . One would have to be a stone oneself not to be moved by it; that was the whole point." But this section of Martin's book is simply lovely, an intuitive exploration of the way great art can work magical but also frustrating transformations. In that respect, Italian Fever is about a third kind of fever -- one whose heat can last even longer than that of the other two.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The reality-distorting fever that afflicts the i-dotting, t-crossing Lucy Stark--a plainish Brooklyn woman who finds herself embroiled in the creepy intrigues of the aristocratic Cini family--envelops 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 business--her employer, a popular and formulaic fiction writer named DV, has drunkenly met his death by falling down a well on the Cini property--Lucy 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 clue--Antonio is the name of the seedy scion of the Cini line--Lucy 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 luxuriously--if 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.
Thirtysomething New Yorker Lucy Stark travels to Italy when her employer, spectacularly successful shlocky novelist DV, dies suddenly. Expecting just to attend to DV's funeral and retrieve his possessions, Lucy finds that her stay in Italy dismantles her view of herself as a plain, practical, reliable woman. While she searches for DV's missing manuscript, the truth about his death, and the whereabouts of his beautiful lover, Lucy falls into a passionate (but tastefully described) love affair with a married man, encounters DV's angry ghost, suffers a ghastly bout of flu, and learns that first impressions are not to be trusted. She also discovers that while art can transform life, it also has the power to destroy. Martin (The Great Divorce, LJ 1/94) makes fine use of the trappings of a Gothic novel to bring this story of a young woman's self-discovery to life. Fans of Diane Johnson's Le Divorce (LJ 11/15/96) will find this especially charming. Very highly recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/99.]--Nancy Linn Pearl, Washington Ctr. for the Book, Seattle Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Los Angeles Times
Acutely observed. . . charmingly old-fashioned.
The Boston Globe
Filled with suspense and surprise in the telling.
The New Yorker
Italian Fever slyly dismantles its own satire and casts a long mysterious shadow over everything that has come before.
Martin's. . . gifts are evident in her strong delineation of a not-as-sensible-as-she-seems heroine and a poignant portrait of a mediocre. . . novelist whose final manuscript stumbles into something approximating art.
Taut, honed, and surprising.
author of Under the Tuscan Sun
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A rich literary stew.
Martin goes head-tohead with some big names (Henry James, E.M. Forster) and comes up aces. . . . A heart-stopping, expert, and entirely contemporary novel.
author of Incubus
Sophisticated. . . elegant, honest, devilishly witty.
Italian Fever is a spectacular book–skillfully designed, wildly imaginative, with a startling mix of playful, romantic, and nightmarish confrontations.
author of Maniken
The Orlando Sentinel
Intriguing. . . both literal and metaphorical.
Italian Fever is a pleasure that sticks to and tickles the ribs.
author of Geek Love
Captivating. . . . In this smart, taut tale, Valerie Martin has captured the spirit of a place, merged it into a seamless narrative, and reminded us of a power of art to alter our lives. A beautifully written, compelling novel.
author of Nothing to Declare
Martin captures what it's like to be an American woman in Italy. Forget those myths of romance and mystery. What Lucy finds far more valuable are friendship and the discovery of artistic treasures and Italian cuisine.
She has written an entertainment, one that follows a well-worn path of New World vs. Old....Threaded through this warp, though, is a weft of pure comedy, ironic perception and a glitter of phrase....[T]his entertaiment...is all surfaces, true, but they are onion surfaces, and their successive peeling constitutes a heart....Entertainment apart, Ms. Martin has written a novel of ideas...
The New York Times
It isn't what you would call thickly plotted. But only the finest writers...can turn a novel of developing consciousness, in which not all that much really happens, into a page-turner....Martin doesn't believe in sudden, overwhelming alterations of consciousness or character....[but she] does believe that experience can transform people, with the proviso that you have to gauge those transformations in tiny measurements.
The New York Times Book Review
The awakening (in more senses than one) of an American woman in Italy is the familiar subject of this stylish though overattenuated sixth novel from the author of such inventive fictions as Mary Reilly (1990) and The Great Divorce (1994). The woman is Lucy Stark, a 30ish independent scholar whose work as "assistant" to a lowbrow popular novelist (identified as "DV") requires her presence in Tuscany to arrange a funeral after DV's accidental death. A "practical, reliable" sort and a disillusioned divorcée who "had come to prefer liberty to passion," Lucy nevertheless gradually surrenders to Tuscany's gustatory and sensual pleasures, falling into an affair with her Italian contact, Massimo Compitelli. Like a very Victorian heroine, Lucy sees (or hallucinates) a ghost or two, and even more intriguingly discovers a startlingly expressionist drawing of a recognizable DV in agony, a "nightmarish vision" perhaps created by DV's most recent mistress, artist Catherine Bultman, who has unaccountably disappeared. Recovering slowly from an enervating fever (and more slowly from her infatuation with the manipulative Massimo), Lucy eventually sorts out the connections among the aforementioned secondary characters, DV's unfinished manuscript (a ghost story with a disturbing basis in reality), and the suspiciously urbane Antonio Cini, scion of an aristocratic family with tangled roots in Italy's embattled Fascist and "Partisan" history. Martin keeps us hooked on several interrelated puzzles for most of her story's length (though Lucy's interlude in Rome drags annoyingly, despite numerous dramatic disclosures) and climaxes it smartly following a viewing of Pierro della Francesca's sublime"Resurrection"with a credibly intricate explanation of why and how the unfortunate DV "got lost in Italy forever". An efficient entertainment, with agreeable echoes of Forster, James, and perhaps Elizabeth Spencer's The Light in the Piazza. Not Martin's most original work, therefore, but one of her most accomplished. (First printing of 50,000)
Read an Excerpt
"Oh, for god's sake," Lucy exclaimed. "It's a ghost story." She dropped the page she was reading onto the smaller of the two stacks that filled every inch of the available space on her cluttered desk. This manuscript, the first half of DV's latest novel, had arrived from Italy the day before. The package was tattered and stained, the postmark a month old. Why had DV shipped it by sea mail? In preparation for the labor of transcribing it onto the computer, Lucy had passed the morning reading it, experiencing, as she always did when confronted by her employer's contributions to the world of letters, a steady elevation of blood pressure and an involuntary clenching of the jaw that made her face ache. The page she took up next was as covered over with scratches, lines, and mysterious explosions of ink as an aerial photograph of a war zone. Why, she wondered, did it take such an effort for DV to write so poorly?
Under different names, in different settings, the narrators of DV's novels were all the same man: a self-absorbed, pretentious bore, always involved in a tragic but passionate relationship with a neurotic, artistic, beautiful woman, always caught up in some far-fetched rescue adventure, dipping occasionally into the dark underworld of thugs and hired murderers, or rising to the empyrean abodes, the glittering palaces of the wealthy and the elite. The whole absurd mess was glazed over with a sticky treacle of trite homilies and tributes by the narrator to himself for being so strong and wise and brave when everyone around him was scarcely able to get out of bed. He was usually a writer or a journalist;sometimes he traveled. When he traveled, he was always recovering from an emotional crisis and he was always alone. This time, his name was Malcolm Manx, described by himself in the early pages as "an American writer of some reputation." Devastated by the breakup of a passionate but tragic marriage, he has secluded himself in a villa in Tuscany, where he hopes to find peace, inspiration, and a renewed interest in life.
Lucy placed her frog paperweight carefully on the pages and stalked off to the kitchen. To read on, she would need a cup of herbal tea, a glass of water, and two aspirin. The book was awful. 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. It wasn't enough that the unsuspecting Italians must succumb to the bold and original charms of the devastated American writer; now he was haranguing the dead as well.
The ghost was the restless spirit of a dead Resistance fighter, a partisan, ambushed by fascist forces in the yard of his own estate. This dead warrior, mirabile dictu, shared with Malcolm Manx both a staunch love of liberty and an ancestor from the rugged Basque country. The presence of such a soul mate, a comrade, stomping through the family olive groves in search of peace and old-world wisdom had so excited the murdered partisan that he got right out of his grave, and now he was wandering around pointing at things, always in the dead of night, when everyone was asleep, everyone but Malcolm Manx, who was up and struggling with the big, hard questions of life and art.
For reasons Lucy usually tried not to think about, DV's books sold well. A few had been made into movies, and DV was encouraged by everyone around him to write more. Reviews were rare, however, and seldom favorable, which galled him, but he had learned to take satisfaction in the size of his bank account.
Through eight years and five novels, Lucy Stark had worked for DV. He never asked her what she thought of his books and she never told him. She was, in his phrase, "the assistant," or sometimes, more accurately, "the office." She kept track of everything, made sure he didn't see the worst reviews, kept his ex-wives at bay, handled his mail, supervised the flow in and out of large sums of money, and transcribed every word of his wretched prose from the tattered, indecipherable pages he sent her to the computer he had never learned to use.
In the early years, she had tried to straighten out some of his worst sentences; she had balked when a mixed metaphor strained to include a fourth incongruent element, but those days were gone. DV had complained to his editor, Stanton Cutler, who had called Lucy and explained, politely but firmly, that she must restrain her no doubt rightful enthusiasm. "Just think of it as a draft," he suggested.
Armed with her tea, dosed with painkillers, Lucy returned to her desk and took up the page that had driven her from the room.
A dark and brooding figure beckoned him eerily on the moonlit drive, and Malcolm felt his burning blood turn to ice in his veins.
"Jesus," Lucy said.
The phone rang. She dropped the page, reached over the lamp, caught the teacup in the cuff of her sweater, and watched in horror as the tea spilled out across the manuscript. Bringing the receiver to her ear with one hand, she lifted the soaking page with the other and tried to funnel the hot liquid into the wastebasket. The tea poured out across the carpet.
"Lucy Stark, please?" a woman's voice inquired.
"This is she."
"American embassy in Rome calling. Please hold."
And in the next moment, as she knelt beside her desk, blotting at the tea stains with a page of newsprint hastily torn from last week's book review, a hostile, disembodied male voice came on the line and gave her the astonishing news that DV was dead.