THE APPRENTICE LOVER
Literary figures large and small populate this smoothly written coming-of-age novel by Parini (The Last Station) set on the island of Capri. Alex Massolino, raised by his mother to be the family's "brainy" boy, is a student at Columbia University when his brother, Nicky, "the lesser son," is killed in Vietnam in 1970. Troubled by Nicky's death and suffocated by his mother's attentions, Alex drops out and takes a secretary/apprentice job with famous Scots novelist and poet Rupert Grant on Capri. Grant, like Robert Graves, embodies his poetic theories in his sexual life: he lives with his wife, Vera, and two female "muses," Holly Hampton, a young blonde blueblood, and Marisa Lauro, a beautiful but disturbed Italian girl. Alex is soon sucked into the island's glitterati scene, where he meets real writers like Graham Greene and Gore Vidal, and is befriended by Dominick Bonano, a dead ringer for Mario Puzo. As the title suggests, Alex gets a sexual education, mooning over Holly but succumbing to Marisa's more accessible charms. Grant, an old satyr, seems to need Alex's rivalry to put an edge on his conquests. The stress on Alex, Holly and particularly Marisa takes its toll, and Alex leaves Capri on a sour note. His failure to gain much wisdom from his experiences makes his stay on the island seem rather hollow, though the emptiness is partly filled by his rereading of Nicky's Vietnam letters, which provide a respite from the decadent world of the Grants. Parini's perennial interest in literary biography is skillfully interwoven here with a theme that has absorbed writers since Henry James: what price does the American soul pay for European sophistication? (Mar.)
Forecast:In a letter addressed to booksellers, Parini writes that The Apprentice Lover is more accessible than his earlier novels, and says he hopes it will attract a wider audience. He may very well be right—the setting and cast list in particular should appeal to readers with even a glancing interest in literary glamour.