The young American woman touched and transformed by the beguilements of Italy is a staple of American letters. In earlier generations, the prototype, displaying pluck and innocence, defied convention and often ended badly, disgraced or dead (think of Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever" or Henry James' "Daisy Miller"); nowadays she is older, more experienced, more careful--rather like her native land--but Italy retains the power to shake her up nevertheless.
Certainly this is how Valerie Martin draws the encounter between the old and new worlds in the acutely observed, charmingly old-fashioned "Italian Fever," her sixth novel. Her heroine is Lucy Stark, "the assistant" or "the office" for DV, a successful American novelist who writes putridly but sells powerfully. DV has gone to Italy--to Tuscany, naturally--to complete his newest book. Half of the manuscript turns up in Lucy's mail and is as usual execrable. The other half is missing. So is the author. It soon emerges that he has fallen into a well and died.
Lucy is charged with traveling to Italy and dealing with DV's affairs. She is in her mid-30s. Preferring "liberty to passion," she is divorced from her husband. From her reaction to DV's writing, the people she meets and the places she visits, we perceive her discernment and intelligence, although we also observe a quickness to judge harshly. Though she does not see herself as unattractive, she knows she is "not likely to inspire the sort of ardor that resulted in secret letters, impulsive trysts, or imprudent promises."
And so the ground is laid. A competent, judgmental, apparently passionless woman--a cousin to the prototypical Anita Brookner heroine, though without the severity or the aching unhappiness--Lucy is bound to undergo an awakening of some kind, and one of the comforts of "Italian Fever" is waiting for it to happen. The goal of this novel is less to surprise the reader than to lead him through familiar but thoughtfully constructed terrain.
The man who kindles Lucy's quiescent flame is Massimo Compitelli, a representative of DV's Italian publisher. He comes to help Lucy deal with the Italian bureaucracy and stays to nurse her through the fever that she contracts after being invited to dinner at the villa of DV's neighbors, the aristocratic, suspicious Cini family. Massimo is married, superficial in his conversation and lacking in irony. But he cooks for Lucy, massages her and washes her hair, and soon gives her a kiss that "would recur in her imagination with all its power and mystery intact whenever she read words like voluptuous, passionate, sensuous, for the rest of her life."
Martin is careful not to over-romanticize Lucy's romance. While there is never any question that Lucy is erotically charged--and changed--by her affair with Massimo, throughout she remains her intelligent, observing self. Thus she recognizes that Massimo seems more interested in her when she is ill than well. She knows that when a love affair starts out with a "notion of us against them, disillusion is bound to set in, and the equation is written then as us against each other." She develops a new openness to Italian food and wine and art, but even here Lucy is nuanced. After visiting Bernini's "Apollo and Daphne" at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, she explains to Antonio Cini, the scion of DV's aristocratic neighbors, why people often think a work of art has a personal message for them: "When we see something that stops us . . . something that really holds us still, it reminds us of how empty and short our own lives are, and that is truly unbearable."
This reflection comes after Lucy, awakened erotically, has undergone an awakening in her character too. She becomes less judgmental; she develops a new compassion for her dead employer; she realizes how much she has misread people, Antonio and Massimo among them. Most of all, she develops a new honest understanding of herself: She is no longer merely practical, principled and removed from life; she is "as much a prey to longings and cravings, as eager to justify her own impulsive behavior with an appeal to the sovereignty of passion over reason, as anyone else." Lucy's journey, while familiar in its lineaments, in its execution is unexpectedly moving.