"The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti" by Annie Vanderbilt

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With its clever structure and highly personal content, The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti captures the struggle of one woman to forgive herself for imagined transgressions in her past. Protagonist Lily recalls a continuing series of sensual encounters, some of which cause her guilt, and from which we are never very far. In fact, I recognize these as the best descriptions of a woman’s sensuality I have ever encountered. Author Annie Vanderbilt guides our tour very effectively, and I will always honor her for that. After a promising start, however, Madame Olivetti unfortunately bogs down from the weight of guilt, delusion, and the life lessons that come too late for the most deserving characters.

Through a series of highly effective erotic scenes, which are not explicit but just very well done, we understand a central feature of Lily’s nature. She bestows her men with love and shares her sensuality generously with them – and most of these episodes occur with her husband Paul as they try to build a family. Lily occupies Paul’s ancestral home in the south of France for a month each summer, and the summer after he dies suddenly of a heart attack, she sets herself the task of putting her guilt-ridden thoughts down on paper, using an aged manual Olivetti typewriter. Her local friends help her see that her guilt stems from a delusion: she thinks she conceived her daughter while having an affair in Mexico (some of the best, dreamiest sensual writing in the book), but an old photograph and a matriarch’s memory help her see the error of her ways.

Ms. Vanderbilt constructs a clever framework in which she allows Lily to tell her story, and interposes a current-events narrative in which her widowed heroine does the writing (while finding yet another partner for rewarding sex). The author slowly reveals Lily’s fraught emotional state to us, but then we find out it’s all a mistake, based on a series of graphically-told emotional losses and doubts. This book’s main reward lies in the effectiveness and clarity of Lily’s internal dialogue. It is constructed on a mistaken and damaging guilt in the main character that I had a hard time crediting, although the author gives it a very game try.

"The Transit of Venus" by Shirley Hazzard

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One can assume the characters in Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus have guiding principles in their lives, a moral framework by which to behave. After all, they lead exemplary outward lives for the most part. However, when Venus transits between them and their principles, when love gets in the way, everything turns to heartache and loss. For multiple characters, thoughts run toward suicide.

Some of what follows will make the reader think this is a dreary or depressing book, because people do suffer disappointment and yearning, sometimes for many years. But the experience of reading The Transit of Venus will redeem you; the author’s rich prose concoction not only intoxicates on an aesthetic level, but also stimulates reflection on the vagaries of human relationships.

This novel lives in several thematic neighborhoods. One thought Ms. Hazzard repetitively focuses on is the insurmountable gap between what people feel and what they say. She expresses this chasm in chopped-up, incomplete conversational sentences, in which trite and over-worn phrases are thought of, and not always even spoken. People speak or think in these fragments and the effect is extraordinary and blunting. People hide their emotions from everyone except themselves. Several times, while the author was carrying this off, I wanted to yell at the character, “Get real for once! Just say what’s on your mind.”

Morality is another lynchpin here. And by morality I mean scale which measures what people do or don’t do for each other – the balance of their motivation: does it tilt toward themselves or toward others? This book is replete with selfishness, particularly on the part of the male characters. Characters keep a running score of the ebb and flow of personal power in relationships (or Ms. Hazzard does it for them), and the tides of these skirmishes shift back and forth in single conversations. (That feature reminded me of Henry James, except it has a clear narrative flow.)

A tall, lovely woman named Caroline (“Caro”) Bell lives at the center of this narrative, and is thoroughly buffeted by its events. Her sister Grace is lovely too, with a strong resemblance to Caro, albeit more lightly complected. Because of a fatal accident on a Sydney Harbor ferry in which they lose both parents, the sisters grow up with a relation named Dora, who is stunningly selfish and self-dramatizing – always working for advantage through a combination of brow-beating and playing the martyr. The girls reach adulthood in Great Britain with grave misgivings about life and people, and barely have the wherewithal to support each other. The inclination is there, but the training, or custom, is not.

Enter the men: Paul Ivory is a handsome, fashionable playwright, at ease with others either singly or in large groups. It isn’t long before Caro falls in love with him. Ted Tice, an astronomer, falls in love with Caro at about the same time. Christian Thrale, son of a stuffy, distinguished scientist, opts for Grace early on, considering Caro a bit too rich for his blood. Relationships come and go – or let’s say the assignations are there for the plucking – and the men generally skirt around the consequences, playing havoc with the female populace. Caro’s Paul marries into nobility and money, but Caro eventually finds an American philanthropist, happiness and marriage, in New York.  Quite near the end of the book, the reason for the continual and unexplained emotional undercurrent – the hatred and recrimination displayed mostly by Ted and Paul – becomes clear. Suffice it to say, the final alignments are what they should be.

The stunning emotional depth of this novel – Ms. Hazzard catches with pinpoint precision the internal dialogs of love and pain and yearning – gives it its great gravitas. That, and the author’s clear moral stance. The emotions are obviously a great strength – this book plumbs even greater depths than her National Book Award-winning The Great Fire (2003) (a book I greatly treasure and honor). The diction, which ranges from stunted and halting to full, sophisticated and eloquent, provides an exact gauge for characters’ commitment or openness.

This review is running to excess. I would love to tackle main character Caro in more depth, but alas … Nevertheless, this book is another example of why I pick up books in the first place. It rewards, it impresses, it lets me live for a while with a strikingly brilliant writer and just … be taken along for the ride.