Italian Fever succeeds in joining together a mystery plot with a travel narrative, ruminations on art, and a ghost story. Italy makes the perfect setting for Valerie Martin's novel, which follows an author's assistant to Tuscany after her employer, DV, has been found dead. Lucy Stark, the novel's intrepid and likable protagonist, sets off to Italy to put DV's affairs in order. She becomes ill with the fever of the title, and then finds herself entangled in the very situations that led to DV's demise.
Martin's descriptions of Italy resound with familiarity, but also allow the reader to enjoy discovering the country along with Lucy. In Rome, Lucy wonders at the wild taxi ride from the station through the racket and beauty of the ancient city, how immense and yet livable it was, for there were no tall buildings to intimidate the pedestrian, and how magical and marvelous it appeared in the crisp autumn light. Italy itself becomes a character in the novel, appearing as both a gracious host and an enigmatic, sometimes threatening, environment. The other terrain Martin deals with concerns writers and their marketplace. As Lucy notes of DV's latest project, 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. While Lucy's assessment of her employer criticizes the reading public for buying such tripe, Martin uses DV's work and the question of audience as an illuminating framework for larger discussions about art. When Lucy visits the Villa Borghese to see Bernini statues, or meets with an expatriate American artist connected with DV's death, the idea of art permeates and forms Martin's novel.
Italian Fever also contains some of the spooky elements Martin's readers may remember from Mary Reilly, one of her earlier books. As Lucy explores DV's rented Tuscan villa, "The whisper of the paper as she lifted the envelope out of the drawer made sudden intrusive explosions in the ponderous stillness of the house. She could feel it brooding over her like some heavy, muffling feathered creature settling down upon the smooth, hard shells of its own future." The eeriness of the novel provides a mythical quality to its mystery, and lends added import and intrigue to each element of this already densely packed narrative.
Eliza McGraw is a graduate student in Nashville.