Saturday, March 13, 2010

"The Night Villa" by Carol Goodman

"The eruption of Italy's Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried a city and its people, their treasures and secrets. Centuries later, echoes of this disaster resonate with profound consequences in the life of classics professor Sophie Chase. In the aftermath of a tragic shooting on the University of Texas campus, Sophie seeks sanctuary on the isle of Capri, immersing herself in her latest scholarly project alongside her colleagues, her star pupil, and their benefactor, the compelling yet enigmatic business mogul John Lyros. Beneath layers of volcanic ash lies the Villa Della Notte - the Night Villa - home to first-century nobles, as well as to the captivating slave girl at the heart of an ancient controversy. And secreted in a subterranean labyrinth rests a cache of antique documents believed lost to the ages: a prize too tantalizing for Sophie to resist. But suspicion, fear, and danger roam the long-untrodden tunnels and chambers beneath the once sumptuous estate - especially after Sophie sees the face of her former lover in the darkness, leaving her to wonder if she is chasing shadows or succumbing to the siren song of the Night Villa. Whatever shocking events transpired in the face of Vesuvius's fury have led to deeper, darker machinations that inexorably draw Sophie into their vortex, rich in stunning revelations and laden with unseen menace."

Carol Goodman always delivers a good story, and this book is no different. There were, however, a few flaws this time, nothing that would keep me from recommending the work. Sophie, like other Goodman heroines, not only studies and teaches the classics, she immerses herself in that world. She must work on this new endeavor, the Papyrus Project, with her former professor and lover (now co-worker) Elgin Lawrence. Elgin, John Lyros and others are hoping to find a work by Pythagoras, one that could possibly prove damaging to the Catholic Church. Also looking for the lost scroll are members of a secret society called Tetraktys, a sort of cult that Sophie's ex-boyfriend belonged to (and left her for). There are several red herrings in the book, some of which work, some which don't.

As usual, Goodman does an excellent job at evoking the feel of the location, in this case, the ruins of Herculaneum. You can almost smell the dust that lingers over the excavation of the Villa della Notte, see the lewd paintings of the "little mysteries" (ancient rites performed in honor of the gods), taste the pasta and olive oil. Where this book falls a bit flat is in the character development, namely Sophie. There are a few things that I didn't buy, things I can't go into here without giving away crucial plot points, but let me just say that I don't believe that she's a naive person, which made some of her actions seem a bit unbelievable. I see why Goodman did what she did, but I wonder if the same outcome could have been achieved in another way.

The best thing about a Goodman book is that there's always a story within the story, and this story was pretty darn good. Phineas Aulus is a scholar and collector of writings (the scrolls), an older man who may also be a bit of a thief. His boat capsizes and the crew drown; he miraculously survives and is taken in by Calatoria Vimidis, a cruel woman who is looking for someone to play the role of the god in her mystery rites. Phineas meets and takes an interest in one of Calatoria's slave girls, Petronia Iusta, a young woman who was raised by Calatoria and her now-deceased husband. There's enough backstabbing and intrigue in this internal story to keep the reader involved; we get to "read" Phineas's diary through the work done by the Papyrus Project. Definitely a recommended book!

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