When Jan, an American academic, rents an apartment in a Tuscan villa for the summer, she plans to spend her break writing a biography of Mussolini. Instead, she finds herself captivated by her hostess, the elegant, acerbic Beatrice. Beatrice’s family ties to Villa Chiara and the land on which it stands extend back generations, although the family has fallen on hard times since WWII and the fate of the property is uncertain. But it is rich in stories, and Jan becomes intrigued by an account of Beatrice’s uncle, who was mysteriously killed on the grounds at the conclusion of the war. Did he die at the hands of the invading Americans, or was he murdered by his countrymen for his political opinions?
For four decades Valerie Martin has been publishing novels and stories that demonstrate her incredible range as a writer, moving between realism and fantasy while employing a voice that is at once whimsical and tragic. The twelve stories in this collection showcase Martin's enviable control, precision, and grace and are organized around her three fictional obsessions—the natural world, the artistic sphere, and stunning transformations. In "The Change," a journalist watches his menopausal wife, an engraver, create some of her eeriest and most affecting works even as she seems to be willfully destroying their marriage. In "The Open Door," an American poet in Rome finds herself forced to choose between her lover and a world so alien it takes her voice away. "Sea Lovers" conjures up a hideous mermaid whose fatal seduction of a fisherman provides better reason than Jaws for staying out of the water. In "The Incident at Villedeau" a respected gentleman confesses to killing his wife's former lover, an event that could be construed as an accident, an impulsive act, or a premeditated crime. Exploring themes of obsession, justice, passion, and duplicity, these drolly macabre stories buzz with tension.
In 1872 the American merchant vessel Mary Celeste was discovered adrift off the coast of the Azores. Her cargo was intact and there was no sign of struggle, but the crew was gone. They were never found.
This maritime mystery lies at the center of an intricate narrative branching through the highest levels of late-nineteenth-century literary society. While on a voyage to Africa, a rather hard-up and unproven young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle hears of the Mary Celeste and decides to write an outlandish short story about what took place. The account causes a sensation back in the United States, particularly between sought-after Philadelphia spiritualist medium Violet Petra and a rational-minded journalist named Phoebe Grant, who is seeking to expose Petra as a fraud. Then there is the family of the Mary Celeste's captain, a family linked to the sea for generations and marked repeatedly by tragedy. Each member of this ensemble cast holds a critical piece to the puzzle of the Mary Celeste.
Throughout the novel, three elements—a ship found sailing without a crew, a famous writer on the verge of enormous success, and the rise of an unorthodox and heretical religious fervor—converge in unexpected ways, in diaries, in letters, in safe harbors and rough seas. In a haunted, death-obsessed age, a ghost ship appearing in the mist is by turns a provocative mystery, an inspiration to creativity, and a tragic story of the disappearance of a family and of a bond between husband and wife that, for one moment, transcends the impenetrable barrier of death.
Valerie Martin re-creates the seamy theater world of 1970's New York, when rents were cheap, love was free, and nudity on stage was the latest craze. Edward Day, a talented and ambitious young actor, finds his life forever altered during a weekend party on the New Jersey shore. There he seduces the delicious Madeleine Delavergne and is saved from drowning by the mysterious Guy Margate, who becomes Edward's rival on stage and off.
And so, at a time when actors flocked to the great method teachers to hone the art of the "truthful" performance, Edward discovers that truth – in theater and in life – is ever elusive and never inert.
Two women, Chloe Dale, an artist comfortably ensconced in bucolic suburbia, and Salome Drago, a wily, seductive refugee from a country that no longer exists, confront each other in a Manhattan restaurant and the battle lines are drawn. Toby Dale, son of the artist and ardent suitor of the refugee, is in no position to choose sides. Outside, the drumbeats of the impending invasion of Iraq drown out all argument, and those who object will soon be reduced to standing in the street.
In "His Blue Period," a painter who owes his small success to a man he despises, discovers that his passivity has cost him the love that might have set him free. In "The Unfinished Novel," a writer of modest talents encounters the old love who once betrayed him – now she repels him – yet the unfinished novel she leave in his care may surpass anything he could produce himself. In "The Change," a printmaker of a certain age enters so deeply into the magical world of her imagination that she can never find her way back.
In these six compelling stories, Valerie Martin turns an unflinching eye upon artists – driven and blocked, desired and detested, infamous and sublime – as they struggle beneath the tyranny of Art to reconcile their audience with their muse.
Set in the surreal heat of the antebellum south during a slave rebellion, Property takes the form of a dramatic monologue, bringing to the page a voice rarely heard in American fiction: the voice of a woman slaveholder. Manon Gaudet is pretty and petulant, self-absorbed and bored. She has come to a sugar plantation west of New Orleans as a bride, bringing with her a prized piece of property, the young slave Sarah, only to see Sarah become her husband's mistress and bear his child. As the whispers of a slave rebellion grow louder and more threatening, Manon speaks to us of her past and her present, her longings and dreams in an uncensored, nerve-wracked, and perverse confession direct from the heart of moral darkness.
Inspired by the Italian frescoes that depict the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Valerie Martin examines the life of Francesco di Pietro Bernardone in a series of vivid "panels" that rediscover the saint in moments both crucial and ordinary. Drawing from myriad sources, she begins in the dark, final days, with a suffering Francesco on the verge of death, then shows us the unwashed and innocent revolutionary, unafraid to lecture a pope. We see his mystical friendship with Chiara di Offreducci, a nobleman's daughter who turns her back on the world to join him, and finally, the frivolous young Francesco on the deserted road where his encounter with a leper leads him to an ecstatic embrace of God. Salvation is at once an illumination of the medieval world and a portrait of an enduring icon of the Western imagination.
Lucy Stark, a clever, pragmatic, capable Brooklynite is the assistant to a best-selling writer named DV who has gone to Tuscany with his latest lover in search of inspiration. One morning Lucy receives a startling message: DV is dead, and the circumstances are suspicious. Soon Lucy finds herself in Italy, where her search for DV's manuscript leads her into the thick of nefarious plots. Part mystery, part romance, part meditation upon the maddening but redemptive power of art, Italian Fever is a funny, insightful portrait of the American abroad, and an irresistible exploration of our perpetual love affair with Italy.
In New Orleans, the lives of three women from different backgrounds and times intersect as they face a turning point in their lives. Ellen, a veterinarian at the New Orleans zoo, is trying to contain a crisis that threatens the zoo's animal population. At the same time, she must come to terms with her crumbling marriage. Alongside her works an enigmatic and disturbed young woman, Camille, whose terrifying fantasies threaten to overwhelm her. Finally, there is Elisabeth, "The Catwoman of St. Francisville," who was hanged in 1845 for murdering her bullying husband in horrific circumstances. The three stories converge, revealing the tenuous border between human nature and what we are pleased to call "the wild."
Faithfully weaving in details from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Valerie Martin introduces an original and captivating character: Mary Reilly, Jekyll's dutiful and intelligent housemaid. Mary is a survivor, scarred but strong, familiar with evil, yet capable of devotion and love. As a bond grows between Mary and her tortured employer, she is sent on errands to unsavory districts of London and entrusted with secrets she would rather not know
Calude Ledet has too much time on his hands and a cumbersome attachment to Mona, a woman obsessed with marriage. One night, in a smoky bar in New Orleans, Claude meets Alexandra, beautiful, skittish, independent, and twenty years his junior. When Alexandra's wealthy friend Diana falls pregnant, Claude is persuaded to accompany Alex to Diana's mansion hidden deep in the bayou. Here Claude learns the disturbing story of a man who looked like him, a man who was also involved with Alexandra and who was found murdered in a hotel room.
Helene Thatcher works at the State Welfare office in New Orleans, a world of forms, files, bad air-conditioning, and departmental regulations designed to keep the poor at bay. The chaos and despair in the lives of the clients Helene strives to assist are mirrored in her own life on the trendier side of town. Her lovers are given to casual violence and drugs, a friend toys, seductively, with insanity. Detached and ironic, Helene is a young heroine who is coping, just barely.
Love comes in many shapes and sizes and some of them are dark. Valerie Martin's taste for disturbing imagery and for excursions into the unseen realm of strange and magical events is everywhere evident in these stories which explore the bonds and boundaries of human love and sexual obsession.