'Italian Fever' -- murder, wistful ghosts

July 11, 1999|By A. J. Sherman | By A. J. Sherman,Special to the Sun

"Italian Fever," by Valerie Martin. Knopf. 259 pages. $22.

This neatly plotted little novel, with its appealing if accident-prone heroine, a few ambiguous characters, appetizing descriptions of Italian landscapes, cuisine and lovemaking, even a restless ghost, is no conventional thriller, but rattles along at an entertaining pace, unraveling mysteries just in time to lead us smoothly onward. Its overall theme, the confrontation of American innocence with European experience, is hardly new. We can forgive Valerie Martin for trailing in the wake of Henry James and others, again presenting us with ancient, superior Italian sophistication in the arts of living, because we come to care for the American woman who is abruptly plunged into European splendors and miseries she could not have foreseen: Lucy Stark is neither naive nor a fool, even if she drinks capuccino at un-Italian times.

Lucy, a down to earth, thirtyish New Yorker who toils unrewardingly as assistant to DV, a notably untalented but successful novelist, learns in a brutal brief message from the American Embassy in Rome that her employer, who has been writing in a remote Tuscan villa and already delivered half his latest, cliche-riddled manuscript, has been found dead under murky circumstances.

Since neither DV's agent, lawyer, nor any of his ex-wives or girlfriends wishes to undertake the posthumous cleanup, including a search for the missing conclusion of DV's promised novel, Lucy sets off undaunted for Italy. On her bleary-eyed arrival, she meets the guide-interpreter provided by DV's Italian publishers: elegant, ruggedly handsome, fortyish, married Massimo, who is endowed with "the wonderful tan skin and thick black hair" of Italy, surprisingly fluent English and unusual green eyes.

Few readers will doubt, especially after their cool initial encounter, that the aptly-named Massimo and Lucy will shortly be embarking on a richly instructive affair. But first we meet bumbling provincial police, DV's grasping peasant landlords and the Cini family, former owners of the estate containing DV's rented villa.

The aristocratic, jaded Cinis, snappish among themselves and icily polite to Lucy, are thoroughly charmless and sinister. Everyone but Lucy appears to have some disreputable secret, and DV's former mistress, an American painter named Catherine, may have crucial clues.

Catherine, however, has disappeared, and before she can be tracked down, Lucy suffers a violent incapacitating illness, whose gastrointestinal symptoms alone should have sent her straight to a hospital. She instead is rescued by strong yet tender Massimo, who has impressive nursing as well as amatory skills. The search for Catherine ultimately takes Lucy to Rome, where she learns more than she perhaps cared to know about life, art and DV's last days.

The relationship with Massimo sputters to its inevitable end, various Cini and other mysteries are clarified, and after a few terminal terrors, wistful ghosts are laid to rest. Her ordeals surmounted, relishing a newly confirmed sense of American sanity, Lucy departs for New York with exultation and relief. One has the feeling she won't be traveling again for some time. In "Italian Fever," Valerie Martin has given us a well-crafted summer confection for the beach or mountains -- but not perhaps recommended for a trip to Italy.

A. J. Sherman, a foundation consultant and writer, lives in Vermont. He works as an associate fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford. He has written "Island Refuge: Britain and Refugees from the Third Reich, 1933-1939," "M.M. Warburg & Co., 1798-1938," "The Raven of Zurich, the Memoirs of Felix Somary" and three pseudonymous thrillers on international banking. His most recent book is "Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948."

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