Rachel Hawkins The Villa, a book review

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Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of the Villa Diodati in Switzerland during those stormy three days and nights in June 1816 when Mary Godwin Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and his personal physician, John Polidori, decided to relieve their boredom making up horror stories. The two great romantic poets made mistakes; on the contrary, the two “amateurs” were in the area. Polidori wrote what would be heralded as the first modern vampire tale, called simply “The Vampire,” and Mary Shelley, of course, set about churning out a masterpiece called “Frankenstein.”

The fact that all the guests at the mansion were so young and their personal lives so messy made this meeting seem like a precursor to those legendary house parties of the rock-and-roll era: for example, the Rolling Stones’ boisterous mansion in 1971 at Villa Nellcôte in France, where they partied and worked on their classic album “Exile on Main St.” Percy Bysshe Shelley and Polidori were in their early twenties; Byron was her elder at 28, while Mary Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairmont, who had accompanied her, were her junior at 18. Percy was still married to his first wife when he ran off with Mary. Claire had, according to herself, enjoyed a “ten minute” date with Bryon, and was pregnant that summer; she might even have had something to do with her brother-in-law.

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The celebrated events at the Villa Diodati serve as the template for Rachel Hawkins’ clever and wickedly funny new suspense novel, “The Villa.” Here’s the premise: A 30-year-old woman named Emily Sheridan, author of the moderately successful “Petal Bloom” mysteries, is having a tough time. Emily has run out of ideas for her cozy series, and adding to her misery, her vile ex-husband Matt is suing for a portion of her royalties, including any future books she might to write. In Emily’s worst moment, her wacky childhood best friend, Chess Chandler, reappears into her life with this irresistible proposition: “You. Me. Italy.” Chess is a gorgeous best-selling author of self-help volumes with saucy titles like “You Got This!”, and she just rented the infamous Villa Aestas in Umbria for six weeks.

“Notorious” is a word that has stuck to the villa due to incidents that took place there in 1974 when rock star Noel Gordon rented the place for a refreshing getaway. At this time, all of England’s majors, past and present, should collectively feel their ears perked up, as Byron’s full name was “George Gordon, Lord Byron.” The echoes of the past continue to amplify: during that summer long ago, Noel invited a younger musician named (um) Pierce Sheldon to visit and perhaps collaborate with him; Also arrived was Pierce’s girlfriend Mari Godwick (get it?) and her half-sister Lara (with whom Noel had had a fling). Sex, drugs and rock and roll exploded until the summer abruptly ended with a suspicious drowning. (Double Jeopardy question: Which romantic poet died by drowning?)

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Hawkins clearly enjoys seeding his story with matches between the real-life bad behavior of those second-generation romantics and the fictional rocker’s gathering in 1974. What makes “The Villa” all the more delightfully ornate is the way Hawkins sporadically quotes passages from the (fictitious) horror novel entitled “Lilith Rising” that Mari wrote in the aftermath of that cursed summer. Emily, who is reading “Lilith Rising” in the present, finds her friendship with Chess souring as their sojourn at Manor Aestas progresses. Indeed, while both women remain mesmerized by the atmosphere of the villa, a murderous rivalry is unleashed between them.

“The Villa” is a moody labyrinth of a novel reinforced by Hawkins’ evident knowledge of gothic conventions: missing manuscripts, debauched aristocrats, isolated locales, and the like. (She IS the author of two previous gothic suspense novels and several other YA novels.) This is an unsettling and twisty thriller that should be read for pure entertainment rather than for its striking prose or social commentary. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, think about the last time you were simply entertained by a good story.

Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” program.

Saint martin. 279 pages. $28.99

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