The Night Villa

Carol Goodman
2008, Suspense
Ballantine, $14.00, 416 pages, Amazon ASIN 0345479602

Grade: C
Sensuality: Subtle

When I was a child, a friend's mother decided that we had insufficient exposure to "culture" and she set out to remedy this deficiency. We spent many Saturday mornings being marched off to well-intentioned poetry readings, lectures, and art openings in my hometown. I remember endless cheaply tiled rooms filled with beige furniture. Works were discussed or read in hushed voices as a small crowd of beige-lipsticked ladies (often with beige hair) dressed in neutral colors all nodded sagely. It was many years before I realized that being cultured does not require quite so much beige-ness - not to mention the fact that a soft-colored hush is no guarantee of elevated artistic sensibility.

Why the beige story? Well, The Night Villa reminded me of these deadly dull afternoons more than any book I've ever read. The author uses what should be a winning formula - intrigue, love lost and found, smart literary references, and a historically tinged tale - but the story she tells lacks the crucial spark of life necessary to create a truly unforgettable story.

Sophie Chase teaches Classics at the University of Texas, the same school at which she completed her own graduate work. One of her students, Agnes, shows great promise as a Classics scholar and Sophie is happy to see Agnes making good progress despite having had trouble breaking off a tumultous relationship. When Sophie goes to an interview with Agnes and the two find themselves caught up in a school shooting, both narrowly escape. Following this shattering incident, Sophie allows herself to be talked into going on an expedition to rescue ancient papyrus scrolls damaged and buried in the A.D. 79 eruption of Vesuvius.

Sophie feels somewhat uneasy about the expedition since it will place her in close proximity with fellow Classics professor Elgin Lawrence. As a graduate student, the two had an emotionally devastating affair and she has sought to keep her distance ever since. Working with Elgin will force Sophie to confront not only her own unresolved feelings for him, but also traumatic memories of her time as a graudate student and her experiences dealing with a frightening cult. She has never fully healed from all she survived as a student, but has instead suppressed it and sought escape in her work.

When Sophie arrives in Italy, she finds herself thrown together with Agnes, Elgin, and various other members of the archeological team. The site at which they excavate has ties to a Roman slave who has intrigued Sophie since graduate school and she relishes the opportunity to uncover some of the secrets of this woman's life. As Sophie gets to know others on the team and they begin to decipher a scroll found on the site, it becomes apparent that the villa was the scene of disturbing pagan rituals. The past takes on an especially horrifying significance for Sophie as she digs deeper and events unfold that cause her to realize that the world she explores in Italy may have dangerous ties to her past life in Austin.

This story has so much going for it, but never seems to pull things together. The events Sophie survived are utterly horrific and, while people react to such things in different ways, Sophie's seeming lack of affect does not ring true. The problem here lies with the creation of Sophie's character. The author tells us who Sophie is rather than showing us. As a result, she never convincingly comes to life. Toward the end of the book, this improves somewhat, but by then, I had already endured too many chapters told in politely dull, distant tones for me to really care.

In addition to the flatness of Sophie, the elements of this gothic thriller pulled themselves together in a way that made me feel as though this tale merely goes through the motions to reach its climax. The reader receives all manner of information about the classical world, cults both ancient and modern, and deep dark secrets haunting the pasts of various characters and, while everything moves along smoothly in a technical sense, none of these supposedly exciting elements actually feels exciting. While the romantic section of the plot does manage a certain poignant quality in the end, most of it does not feel particularly impassioned.

While the author is obviously very well educated on her subject, she fails to convey anything with vividness or passion, resulting in a book that ultimately feels a bit dull. The curiously underdeveloped characters are not wholly bad and their story is actually an intriguing one, but the flat quality of the storytelling makes for a distinctly ordinary read. Readers interested in Carol Goodman's work would be better advised to check out The Seduction of Water instead.

-- Lynn Spencer

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