Fiction - La dolce vita

Italian Fever

Valerie Martin <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 272pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0752867113

Novels about British or American women finding love in the Tuscan hills can seem like a cliche. Henry James wrote one, E M Forster wrote two, and I myself must confess to a couple. It is surely asking for trouble to publish another. Men hate the idea that Italian men really are divine in bed, women hate the idea of other women enjoying themselves, and everybody except John Mortimer goes a bilious shade of green at the very name Tuscany.

Yet Valerie Martin's Italian Fever is an absolute joy to read. Having won the Orange Prize last year for her dour romance Property, about life on a slave plantation, she is in happier territory here with a novel that is part love story, part ghost story, and a wholly enjoyable and intelligent summer read. Its heroine, the knowingly named Lucy Stark, is editor to DV, one of the world's worst, bestselling novelists. Martin has immense fun describing just how terrible his macho writing is. "Thinly disguised accounts of his own life", DV's novels feature "big, strong men with large appetites, big ideas", even though their author is "not five feet five", is often ill and "had so thoroughly destroyed his digestive tract with bourbon that he subsisted on a bland diet of boiled meat and rice". Lucy is relieved when she hears he has died without finishing another abysmal book.

Asked to retrieve DV's last, unfinished manuscript, she travels to Italy, where she meets Massimo, a startlingly handsome married Italian with "wolf's eyes" who rapidly seduces her when she falls ill. So far, so much as expected. Yet DV has died in a septic tank, under mysterious circumstances, and in the absence of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen to do the sleuthing, Lucy has to investigate. She visits her author's landlords, a snotty pair of aristocrats whose plain, stiff son Antonio is chillingly aloof. She visits DV's ex-wife, Catherine, a voluptuous painter in Rome. She has one too many epiphanies in front of Great Italian Art and an inexplicable encounter with the supernatural, but the lessons she takes back to Brooklyn are touchingly unexpected.

Lucy is an engaging New Yorker of a kind too seldom encountered in fiction, though plentiful in real life. Plain and middle-aged, she is sensible, sensitive, civilised and modest. Her own sensibility having been formed by Henry James, she cannot understand why her publisher wants the coarse fictions of her employer, but she copes. Wryly observant of snobbery in its American and European forms, she succumbs to "the foreign universe of desire, passion and obsession" because "nobody had ever shown such an interest in her before", and because, like all of us, she has an imaginary version of herself at which she has not yet learned to laugh.

All the characters are drawn with discretion and assurance, and Lucy's inevitable withdrawal from Massimo after their period of erotic bliss is managed with dignity. She knows she will never again have a night like those she spent with him - and, I'm afraid, for many women who have had their own Massimos this is all too true - but what she discovers about friendship is far more important, interesting and sustaining.

This is a wise, intelligent novel about how bad writers can suffer just as much for their art as good ones, and how true friendship is better than a thousand kisses. It should be enjoyed both in its own right, and as a worthy addition to the growing line of Tuscan fictions.

Amanda Craig's latest novel, Love in Idleness, is published in paperback by Abacus