Monday, August 3, 2020

I Give It to You by Valerie Martin

Who else is dreaming of traveling to Italy? I Give It to You is a most appropriately titled book for a virtual vacation. Even better for escapism, Valerie Martin's new novel is set in the past: the 1980s and World War II Tuscany. Like in her classic Property, Martin offers us an unreliable narrator, but this one is a novelist instead of a slave owner. The protagonist is both guest and parasite.

I Give it to You is a writer's novel that questions the boundary between author and subject. Is the story there to be plucked like a fruit or are there limits, especially when fictionalizing personal history? The protagonist, Jan, is a midlist author has been offered the dream fellowship to research a novel in Italy. She has rented the sunny limonaia at an old estate in rural Tuscany. The architecture is as well rendered as the characters: 

"Parallel to the gate, the charming limonaia stands with its back to the wall. Glass and verdigris copper doors glint beneath the shelter of the rafters, which extend over a small stone terrace. Artfully placed hip-high pots of rosemary and lemon trees create a cool and semiprivate sitting area."

From her sunny patio, Jan observes the aristocratic family in the main villa. The glamorous Beatrice shows her around the countryside, and as a friendship develops between the two middle aged professors, Beatrice shares the story of her family's struggles under Mussolini. Oddly enough, we learn nothing about Jan's past or family. This narrative approach succeeded in creating plot tension and mystery, but at the expense of the protagonist, who was the least developed and most unlikable character. Jan is prone to prejudices against psychiatry and offensive ethnic stereotypes. She judges others with impunity but is defensive when they judge her in turn.

The old villa is both a stage for family drama and a metaphor for decay of the aristocracy. As a reader, we grow to love Villa Chiara as much as Beatrice does. Even its rustic failings like bad plumbing become plot points to increase tension amongst the extended family. The chapters alternate between the 1980s and flashback chapters to Beatrice's childhood during the War and afterwards as a graduate student in Massachusetts. Sometimes the past and present chapters overlap so that the narrative becomes a bit repetitive. What brings the story to life are all the well-developed secondary characters who have hidden motives and agendas of their own.

Although the photos in this post are from my last trip to Tuscany nine summers ago, I Give it To You will be released in the USA tomorrow (8/4/20). I'd recommend it to anyone who craves a vacation in Italy and to writers who enjoy a well-crafted book. I wonder if our current pandemic will divide history as much as World War II did. Will there be a new genre of post-pandemic literature since the world has fundamentally changed?


troutbirder said...

Interesting questions here about the line between an author and the protagonist book. I've crossed that line many times in my memoirs but not really a problem in that most of my writing except to magazine articles is only given friends and acquaintances. Another point I found interesting was judging other people easily and without mercy but being unable to step similar judgments named it yourself. Truth to tell I do that often I also agree about not liking this psychiatry my background in group sociology. And even anthropology I think taught me more about human behavior than anything else if you even anthropology I guess what I'm saying is I think for personal reasons I would really enjoy reading this book though some of my reasons might not be appropriate for others judge a book

A Cuban In London said...

Well, we certainly need a virtual vacation these days. Thanks for another fantastic review.

Greetings from London.

thecuecard said...

Nice review Sarah. We went to Tuscany in 2016 for a bicycle trip which was excellent, so I'm drawn to novels set in Tuscany and this one sounds good! I have not read Valerie Martin before. I will check for it at my library. Hope you are well.

Lucy said...

I took a cruise in 2018 that started in Venice and stopped in Bari Italy. I spent extra time in Venice but it wasn't enough and Tuscany is definitely on my list of places I want to go. Thanks for the recommendation - will definitely have to check it out! :)