Sylvia Casey is a writer. Her previous books were not enough of a success for her publisher to stay with her if she doesn't produce a blockbuster of sorts this time around. As if struggling professionally isn't enough, her husband of many years has recently left her for a man. She's come to Palmerino, an enclave in Italy just outside Florence, to recover personally and professionally as she researches the life of Violet Paget, a Victorian novelist best known for her supernatural stories under the pen name of Vernon Lee. Paget was a polymath, feminist, and lesbian who fully inhabited the created persona of Vernon Lee and Sylvia Casey wants to write a fictional biography of the not very well known author, hence her retreat to Palmerino, where Paget/Lee lived out much of her life.
The story has a triple stranded narration, telling the story of Sylvia and Violet/Vernon as well as the ghost of Vernon, who slowly creeps into Sylvia's consciousness before possessing her incrementally, in an intentional echo of Vernon's own writing. When the narration focuses on Sylvia, it centers on her writing, the lush, atmospheric place that Palmerino is, and her discoveries about the little known writer on whom she is growing increasingly fixed. The portion centered on Violet/Vernon tells a fairly straightforward biography of the writer, using her own diaries, letters, and the impressions of those around her, painting her as impressively intelligent, socially abrasive, scared of intimacy, and needy. When the spirit of Vernon narrates the tale, there is a sense of gathering menace and a disturbingly self-congratulatory feel in the pleased accounting of what she can make Sylvia write and do.
The narration gives the sensation of having a dreamy veil over it. Everything, whether necessary, tangential, or completely immaterial to the plot, is described in detail, giving the whole of it a florid and meandering feel. The pacing is slow and made for a very soporific read for me. The ending is a bit strange and otherworldly, another echo of the real Vernon Lee's work, but inevitable for all that. While I found the story a struggle to read, there are many glowing tributes to the book and the writing. Certainly the question of inspiration, research, and authorship, loneliness and connection, and the close link between this world and the spirit world are all present in the text but ultimately they don't seem to drive anything or to be examined fully in the course of the novel. In the end, the biggest irony for me is that Sylvia's manuscript, called Palmerino, is deemed unreadable.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.