>> Thursday, March 12, 2015
An evocative tale of intrigue, romance, and treachery, Carol Goodman’s spellbinding new novel, The Night Villa, follows the fascinating lives of two remarkable women centuries apart.
The eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried a city and its people, their treasures and secrets. Centuries later, echoes of this disaster resonate with profound consequences in the life of classics professor Sophie Chase.
In the aftermath of a tragic shooting on the University of Texas campus, Sophie seeks sanctuary on the isle of Capri, immersing herself in her latest scholarly project alongside her colleagues, her star pupil, and their benefactor, the compelling yet enigmatic business mogul John Lyros.
Beneath layers of volcanic ash lies the Villa della Notte–the Night Villa–home to first-century nobles, as well as to the captivating slave girl at the heart of an ancient controversy. And secreted in a subterranean labyrinth rests a cache of antique documents believed lost to the ages: a prize too tantalizing for Sophie to resist. But suspicion, fear, and danger roam the long-untrodden tunnels and chambers beneath the once sumptuous estate–especially after Sophie sees the face of her former lover in the darkness, leaving her to wonder if she is chasing shadows or succumbing to the siren song of the Night Villa. Whatever shocking events transpired in the face of Vesuvius’s fury have led to deeper, darker machinations that inexorably draw Sophie into their vortex, rich in stunning revelations and laden with unseen menace.
The Night Villa was my introduction to author Carol Goodman, who's got a fair few books which sound like just my sort of thing. The set-up here is my catnip: interesting location and parallel storylines set in the past and the present, with the latter including an investigation into the former.
The book starts out in Texas, where Classics professor Dr. Sophie Chase has the misfortune of being in the room when a student's jealous ex comes looking for her with a gun. Sophie is injured in the ensuing shooting and her recovery is hard, both physically and mentally. When her colleague insists she joins his team in Herculaneum in what he calls the Papyrus Project, it seems like the perfect chance to get away.
It's not just about escaping, the project is irresistible to Sophie. Years ago she came across records of a legal dispute between a young woman called Iusta, daughter of a freed slave, and her mother's former owner, who claimed Iusta had been born before her mother was freed, and therefore was still a slave herself. Sophie has always wanted to know more about what happened to the young woman, and the Papyrus Project promises to deliver some information on that subject. The project involves using spectrograph technology to read burnt scrolls found in the Villa della Notte (the Night Villa, in English) in Herculaneum, and what's been decoded shows that they are the diaries of a traveller called Phineas, who mentions a young slave woman called Iusta. It's the right time and place, so Sophie is convinced it must be the same Iusta. She joins the team in a villa that's a reproduction of the original Villa della Notte, built by the billionaire backer of the project close to the site of the original one.
As the scrolls are slowly deciphered and Iusta comes alive in the days right before the eruption of Mt. Vesubius, while her household prepares for some mysterious rites in which Phineas is to be the protagonist (which, the story intimates, might not be a good thing for him), mysterious events are afoot in the modern Villa della Notte. It appears Phineas, who was an explorer and all-around scoundrel, might have been carrying some lost manuscripts containing teachings of Pythagoras. And this would be gold to a group called the Tetraktys, a cult that worships Pythagoras and follows his teachings. It's a group Sophie is very familiar with, because a few years before the start of the book she lost her boyfriend to them. She suspects they might be involved with some of the weird things happening at the site.
As you can probably tell from reading this convoluted description, there is a lot going on. When you're reading this, though, it doesn't feel convoluted. Both main stories, that of Iusta in the last days of Herculaneum and of Sophie as she and the team investigate what happened to Iusta, are really well done, and the subtle echoes between them worked. The whole Tetraktys cult thing was maybe a bit over-the-top, but there needed to be some external threat to the present-day excavation, and in the end I thought that thread worked very well.
There is an element of romance here, and I quite liked how it was done. I really had no idea which of the 3 different potential candidates would be the one for Sophie, because I really wasn’t quite sure which one could be trusted. Any could have ended up being the villain, and I liked that. It was refreshing, since with most romances which try this I can tell within 10 minutes who the hero is meant to be!
And of course, the setting was amazing. It's rich and evocative, wonderfully done. I really wanted to be there and wished the Villa della Notte reproduction actually existed. I also particularly liked the sections set in Napoli. It did feel like Napoli, beautiful but at the same time oppressive and overwhelming and a little bit scary.
I enjoyed this quite a bit. It was maybe a a bit too long and could have been pruned a bit (it did take me quite a while to read, and I was on holiday), but I enjoyed it.
MY GRADE: A B.