This week, Don reviews "The Villa: A Novel" by Rachel Hawkins.
Rachel Hawkins has had two recent successes with clever novels that are, in some fashion, based on previous novels, “Jane Eyre” and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” Publicity material for “The Villa” suggests that it’s inspired by the story of the writing of “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley in 1816, in a villa in Switzerland, perhaps on a bet, and by the Manson murders and by ’70s rock and roll. There are echoes and allusions, but this is not exactly a retelling. “The Villa” is in the tradition of the story within a story, the “lost” manuscript discovered and responded to. Perhaps the best example lately A. S. Byatt’s “Possession.”
Two young women, Emily and Chess, friends from childhood in Asheville, NC, spend the summer of 2021 together in Italy in a rented villa, the Aestas. In that same villa, in 1974, two stepsisters, Mari and Lara, both 19 years old, lived with Mari’s lover Pierce, an up-and-coming musician, and Noel Gordon, the world’s most famous rock star and his live-in drug dealer, Johnnie. (Noel, with his limp, is modelled after Lord Byron, and Pierce after Shelley. Mari is Mary.) In the 1974 sequence, there are sexual hi-jinks, drugs, rock and roll, betrayal, and violence. And writing. Is the villa in some way magic, or cursed? Do houses have memory?
The 2021 characters are very much aware of the 1974 events. Nobody seems to be thinking about the Shelleys and Byron. Nevertheless, Lara will write and record a brilliant album, named Aestas, compared here to Carole King’s “Tapestry,” and Mari, who finds a piece of hidden manuscript, will write a spectacular novel, “Lilith Rising.” Emily and Chess are writers, at present, both blocked. Chess writes self-help books for women. Her titles include “Your Best Self” and “You Got This.” Her career began as an advice column on a website, then Instagram, then a Ted Talk, then Oprah’s couch. She advises women on how to get on “The Powered Path.” It was difficult for me to decide whether Hawkins meant the reader to find Chess’s books ridiculous or not. I do, and sometimes Emily does, too. She writes: “Chess launched herself as this weird combination of Taylor Swift, Glennon Doyle and a girl boss Jesus.”
Emily has produced nine “Petal Bloom” cozy mysteries with titles like “A Deadly Dig,” and “A Murderous Mishap.” At present, however, life has turned bleak. Her toddler son died and her estranged husband, Matt, is suing for a big chunk of Emily’s royalties and future earnings. All the men in all centuries are unreliable, even treacherous, but Chess is sketchy too. She will betray Emily in a variety of ways that should be unforgiveable, but apparently aren’t, and the two will create a masterwork together, based partly on what they learn about the 1974 shenanigans, which may have included murder, or perhaps not. Hawkins’ fans love her plots with their twists and turns. “The Villa” may have one too many turns. It made me dizzy.