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  • Written by Carol Goodman
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  • Written by Carol Goodman
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A Novel

Written by Carol GoodmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Carol Goodman

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List Price: $9.99

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On Sale: August 05, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-50938-3
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

An evocative tale of intrigue, romance, and treachery, Carol Goodman’s spellbinding new novel, The Night Villa, follows the fascinating lives of two remarkable women centuries apart.

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.

Praise for The Night VIlla:

“Visit The Night Villa: Carol Goodman’s luminous prose and superb storytelling will keep you entertained into the late hours.”
–Nancy Pickard

“The pleasure of a Carol Goodman novel is in her enviable command of the classical canon–and the deft way she [writes] a book that’s light enough for a weekend on the beach but literary enough for a weekend in the Hamptons.”
–Chicago Tribune


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

When the first call came that morning I was with a student, so I didn’t answer it.

“Don’t worry,” I told Agnes Hancock, one of my most promising classics majors, “the machine will get it.”

But it stopped after the third ring.

“I guess whoever was calling changed his mind,” Agnes said, relacing her fingers to conceal the ragged cuticle on her right thumb. She’d been gnawing on it when I found her waiting outside my door—ten minutes early for my eight o’clock office hours. Most of my students were sound asleep at this hour, which was why I held my office hours so early: to discourage all but the most zealous. Agnes was definitely a zealot. She was on a scholarship, for one thing, and had to maintain a high average, but Agnes was also one of those rare students who seemed to have a genuine passion for the material. She’d gone to a high school with a rigorous Latin program and gotten the highest score on the national Latin exam in the state. Not shabby for a state as big as Texas. She wasn’t just good at declensions, though; she had the ability to translate a line of ancient poetry and turn it into poetry again, and the agility of mind to compare the myths from one culture to those of another. She could have a successful academic career in classics or comparative literature. The only problem was that her personal life was often chaotic—a result, I suspected, of her looks.

Agnes was blessed with the kind of classic American beauty that you thought only existed in fashion magazines—until you saw someone like her walking down the street. Long, shiny blond hair, flawless skin, straight teeth she was born with, blue eyes—the kind of Barbie-looks I would have traded my dark hair and olive skin for when I was growing up. I couldn’t complain though; the enrollment in my Latin and mythology classes had never been so high before Agnes declared her major. There were always a couple of suitors waiting outside on the quad when we emerged from Parlin Hall, but they had been replaced this year by one in particular: a wild-eyed philosophy major who pursued her relentlessly through the fall and then became so jealously possessive of her when she finally agreed to go out with him that she’d broken up with him over spring break. I hadn’t seen him since then and I’d heard that he dropped out. Now I wondered if he was back. I have a feeling the torn cuticles and dark shadows under her eyes are his doing, but I’m afraid that if I ask her about it she’ll burst into tears. And that won’t do either of us any good. We’re both due in Main Building at nine o’clock for the Classics Department’s summer internship interviews. Which is why, no doubt, she’d camped out on my doorstep so early this morning.

“It was probably someone calling about the final,” I say, reaching toward the phone. “I’ll turn the ringer off so we won’t be disturbed.”

“Oh no, you don’t have to do that, Dr. Chase. It wasn’t anything that important . . .” She’s already half out of her chair. I’d forgotten how easily spooked she gets when attention, good or bad, is directed at her. It surprised me at first because I thought that, with her looks, she’d be used to it, but I’ve gathered through talks we’ve had about her childhood that her father, a Baptist minister in a small west Texas town, preached endlessly against the sin of vanity. She seems to think it’s her fault when boys fall in love with her, which has made it all the more difficult to deal with her possessive ex-boyfriend.

“Don’t be silly, Agnes, I do it all the time. Believe me, they’ll just e-mail me instead. My inbox will be filled with a dozen questions designed to ferret out the exact passage that’ll be on the exam. Anything to avoid actually reading the whole of Metamorphoses.”

“But Ovid writes so beautifully,” Agnes says, her eyes widening in genuine disbelief. “Why would anyone not want to read everything he wrote? I especially love his version of the Persephone and Demeter story. I’m using it for my presentation.”

I smile, not just because of the pleasure of a shared literary passion, but because my ploy has worked. At the mention of her favorite poet a calm has settled over Agnes. She’s sunk back into her chair and her hands, released from the knot she’d wrung them into, fan open, loose and graceful, in her lap, like one of those paper flowers that expand in water.

“Is that what you wanted to see me about? Your proposal to Dr. Lawrence for the Papyrus Project?”

Agnes hesitates and I see her gaze stray out my second-story window toward the quad, where a few students are lounging in patches of shade cast by the live oaks. It’s not yet nine, but the temperature is already in the eighties and the forecast predicts it’ll break a hundred by noon. The sunlight between the trees is so bright that it’s hard to make out anything but amorphous shapes in the shade. So if Agnes is checking to see if her ex-boyfriend is waiting for her, she’ll be looking in vain.

“It’s on the role of women in mystery rites?” I prompt. Since my specialty is women in the ancient world, I’ve been coaching Agnes on her proposal.

“Yes,” she answers, tearing her eyes away from the window. “I plan to argue that the frescoes in the newly excavated section of the Villa della Notte, which was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, depict a mystery rite similar to the ‘little mysteries’ of Agrai, which combined Eleusinian and Dionysian elements.”

“And can you give a brief definition of mystery rites and of those two in particular?”

“Sure. A mystery rite was a secret form of worship that revealed some kind of ‘truth’ or doctrine only to those initiated to the rite. They usually had something to do with the afterlife. The most famous were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which got their name because they were originally celebrated in Eleusis, Greece, and although we don’t know exactly what went on because they were, well . . .”

“Mysteries?”

“Yes, secret mysteries. We know they reenacted the story of Persephone and Demeter. An initiate probably relived the story of the rape of Persephone, her trip to the underworld, and then the wandering of her mother, Demeter, who killed the crops and everything growing because she was so upset at losing her daughter. While she’s wandering around she comes to Eleusis, which is why the rites were there, then she goes to Zeus, who sends Hermes to bring Persephone back. Only Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds, so she could only spend half the year aboveground and the other half she had to spend in Hell—I mean, Hades . . .”

Agnes blushes at her slip, and I save her by nudging her on to the next topic. “What about the Dionysian rites?”

“We think they reenacted the story of Dionysus Zagreus, a variant of the wine god myth. In this version Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Persephone . . .”

Agnes notices me lifting an eyebrow and a little light of understanding dawns in her face, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before! Persephone’s a link between the two myths! Anyway, Hera, jealous of her husband’s illegitimate child, gets the Titans to eat the baby”—here Agnes makes a face and mock shudders—“but Athene rescues the heart and brings it to Zeus, who eats it and proceeds to have another affair—this time with Semele, who gives birth to a new Dionysus. In the rites, a group of women, called maenads, become intoxicated with wine and reenact the dismemberment and consumption of the god—”

“Literally?”

“Oh no—at least we hope not! I mean there is that play by Euripides where Agave, the queen of Thebes, and her women are so frenzied they tear apart Agave’s own son, Pentheus, but probably they just tore apart bread meant to represent the god and drank some more wine. Of course, if you believe Livy, the rites turned into this big sex orgy, but I think that was just prejudice because the rites were popular with women and took place at night. Anyway . . .”

As Agnes goes on to describe the Dionysian elements in the frescoes in Herculaneum, such as the presence of the traditional basket (liknon) and wand (thrysus), I wonder, not for the first time, at a Baptist minister’s daughter choosing to study pagan religions. But then, casting off the family religion was no alien concept to me, and I suppose studying Dionysian orgies and blood sacrifices was as harmless an act of rebellion as the piercings and tattoos sported by her contemporaries. Still, her passion for the subject is a little unsettling. Describing the frenzy of the maenads she begins to look like one herself, her cheeks pinking, her blue eyes flashing, and her hair coming loose from its ponytail. She comes abruptly back to herself when she notices, as I do, that another call is coming in on my phone. The light flashes four times and then stops. My caller has apparently gotten slightly more determined to reach me.

“Excellent,” I say. “And now tell me why you have to go to Italy to study these frescoes?”

“Well,” Agnes says, taking a deep gulp of air and refastening her ponytail, “for one thing, the newly excavated frescoes haven’t been photographed yet, but, most important, they’ve also found charred papyrus rolls in the villa. The little taggie things on them—”

“Sillyboi,” I suggest, providing the Greek term for the tags that ancient librarians used to identify papyrus rolls.

“Um, yeah.” She giggles nervously. “I guess I should use the Greek name, but it always makes me laugh . . . The sillyboi indicate that the library of the villa was dedicated to foreign religions—there are books on Mithraism, Isis worship, the cult of Cybele, Orphism, Pythagoreans—so why wouldn’t there be one that described the little mysteries that went on right there? And while at one time we wouldn’t have been able to read these scrolls because they were all burned on the outside when Vesuvius erupted, Dr. Lawrence is going to use multispectral imaging to see inside them . . . which I think is just so cool. I really think Dr. Lawrence is a genius, don’t you?”

Not Agnes, too. She hasn’t gotten caught in his web, has she? Elgin Lawrence has a history of seducing his teaching assistants, and Agnes is just his type—and not just because she’s beautiful. He preys on young girls who are insecure. Agnes’s father might have thought he was doing her a favor by scourging her of vanity, but he would have done better to instill a sense of self-worth in his daughter.

I open my mouth to form some sort of polite but qualified response to Elgin Lawrence’s claims to genius, but I am spared such shameless equivocation by the appearance at the door of Barry Biddle, Elgin’s grant partner on the Papyrus Project.
Carol Goodman|Author Q&A

About Carol Goodman

Carol Goodman - The Night Villa

Photo © (c) Brian Velenchenko

Carol Goodman is the author of The Lake of Dead Languages, The Seduction of Water, The Drowning Tree, The Ghost Orchid, The Sonnet Lover, and The Night Villa. The Seduction of Water won the Hammett Prize, and others of her novels have been nominated for the Dublin/IMPAC Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her fiction has been translated into eight languages. She lives in New York State with her family.

Author Q&A

A Conversation With Carol Goodman

Carol Goodman and her husband, Lee Slonimsky, chat about writing, Italy, and good tomatoes.

Lee Slonimsky: Like your last book, The Sonnet Lover, The Night Villa is set in Italy, but this time in the Bay of Naples. What drew you back to an Italian setting, and why a different part of the country?

Carol Goodman: Having made numerous trips to Italy while researching The Sonnet Lover, one visit I found particularly memorable was to the Bay of Naples. This breathtakingly beautiful area has fascinated me since I first visited Pompeii and Herculaneum as a classics student in college. I think any writer strolling the streets of Sorrento would find inspiration there.

LS: Certainly many have. Sorrento’s town square is even dominated by the statue of a native poet, Torquato Tasso. So was Italy your main inspiration for the novel, or did something else lead you to this story?

CG: More than most, this book had a very precise moment of origin. My friend Ross Scaife is a professor of classics at the University of Kentucky, and he told me of a grant he’d been given to use multispectral imaging to study the charred manuscripts found at Herculaneum’s Villa dei Papiri. I thought this was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard of and immediately wanted to base a book’s plot around a similar exploration. Ross was generous with suggestions and explanations, and he directed me toward a fine book by David Sider, The Library of the Villa dei Papiri. As I constructed my story, though, I realized I had to fictionalize the villa as well as give my characters someplace to relax. I also took many liberties with the scientific process of scanning ancient manuscripts, for which I apologize to Ross and his colleagues.

LS: One of the most remembered and tragic events in history, the eruption of Vesuvius in a.d. 79 is an interesting choice of subject matter for a novelist like yourself who often works with themes of memory and loss. Has Pompeii long been a subject of fascination for you?

CG: The first time I saw Pompeii and Herculaneum, I was twenty years old. Spending a semester at the Inter-Collegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, I visited a lot of ancient sites. Still, nothing prepared me for walking down an actual street in Pompeii or entering an authentic house in Herculaneum.

LS: Were Iusta and Phineas real people?

CG: Phineas is fictional; Iusta is based on a real person. I first read about her in Joseph Jay Deiss’s book Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure. Her story is much as I describe it in chapter five of The Night Villa, with a few details changed about the lawsuit. All that is known about Iusta comes from eighteen wax tablets. We don’t know whether she was even in Herculaneum when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Everything Sophie finds out about Iusta from Phineas is, of course, fictional.

LS: All your novels have been filled with classical references of one sort or another, but The Night Villa is the first to contain a literal, if fictitious, ancient manuscript, a real character and voice from the ancient world. What was writing in that voice like for you?

CG: I was worried I wouldn’t be able to capture Phineas’s voice or tell Iusta’s story. For Phineas, I reread a number of classical authors: Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Aulus Gellius, and Livy. When writing those sections, I tried to think about how it would sound in Latin, so while composing in English, I used words with Latin counterparts.

As for Iusta, I was immediately drawn to her story, but it wasn’t until the end of the book that I felt I heard her voice. I could have written much more about her, but at least she has the final word.

LS: Was there anything else that inspired you in the course of writing the book?

CG: Your book of sonnets about the life of Pythagoras [Pythagoras in Love] suggested to me the nature of the modern cult in The Night Villa. I had no idea how important and profound a historical figure Pythagoras was–even more than a mathematician or philosopher.

LS: The Night Villa includes two of my poems, one written in this plot-oriented manner, and the other a recent poem you liked and thought would fit your plot. That’s the Wilhelmina F. Jashemski poem, which had actually been inspired by reading The Night Villa.

CG: It wasn’t until the second draft that I realized it would work perfectly as the poem Sophie wrote for Elgin. You know, you’ve adopted a persona of Pythagoras for your poems and are so adept at writing from the personae I’ve “assigned” you over the years [Zalman Bronsky in The Ghost Orchid, Ginevra de Laura in The Sonnet Lover], I sometimes wonder if you ever write from your own point of view. I know I sometimes give my fictional characters pieces of myself. For instance, I give Sophie my old Austin bungalow and, of course, my love of classical authors.

LS: Were there any particular books you read during your research for The Night Villa?

CG: I read a lot of nonfiction books for research. For those interested, the most useful were Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure by Joseph Jay Deiss, The Library of the Villa Dei Papiri at Herculaneum by David Sider, The Cults of Campania by Roy Merle Peterson, The Cults of the Roman Empire by Robert Turcan, Romans on the Bay of Naples by John D’Arms, Earthly Paradises: Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology by Maureen Carroll, and Vesuvius A.D.79 by Ernesto De Carolis and Giovanni Patricelli. For the history and atmosphere of Capri, I read The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe, Siren Land by Norman Douglas, Capri and No Longer Capri by Raffaele La Capria, and Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard. It was fun but also hard work. The next book is going to be set in New England.

LS: No more trips to Italy?

CG: Not for a little while, but I was thinking we could go hiking in New Hampshire.

LS: Sounds good to me.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The Night Villa continues the intersection of past and present narratives common in Carol Goodman’s other novels, but with a much-greater expanse of time between the two threads. Does this make for a more dramatic narrative? What other effects does the gulf of time separating the two stories have?

2. Part of the plot is tied to a historical event: the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 a.d. What kind of shadow does this famous event cast over the novel?

3. How sympathetic a character did you find Agnes? Does her background fully explain her behavior?

4. Do you see Phineas as fundamentally decent, a pompous ass, or somewhere in between?

5. Cults play a significant role in this novel, past and present. How do you define a cult? Have you ever known a cult member? Why do you think people join them?

6. Who is your favorite character in The Night Villa? Least favorite?

7. The multispectral imaging technology used in The Night Villa has the potential to revolutionize the study of ancient manuscripts. What exotic or ancient world would you like to know more about?

8. Do you think Sophie was right to complain bitterly about conditions at the Hotel Convento? Or was she acting like a “spoiled American”?

9. What genre of writing do you think The Night Villa falls into?

10. Like previous Carol Goodman novels, The Night Villa brings its geographic setting vividly alive. Is there a place you have visited that has artistically inspired you?

11. Sophie is horrified in The Night Villa by the loss of her boyfriend, Ely, to a cult. Have you had a similar experience of distance developing in a relationship–perhaps if not because of a cult, then because of an addiction or an all-consuming hobby? If so, how did you handle it?

12. One characteristic of literary fiction is that characters are not static and may undergo genuine changes during the course of a narrative. What character or characters undergo transformations in The Night Villa?

13. Certainly Sophie’s impression of Elgin changes during the novel. Did yours? If so, do you think Elgin changed, or was it simply that you got more information about him?

14. When ex-lovers reencounter each other after years have passed, the results can range from animosity to the flame being resparked. Have you ever had such an encounter? What happened?

15. How do the issues in Iusta’s life relate to problems faced by contemporary women? Are they drastically different?


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