cover image The Grotto

The Grotto

Coral Lansbury, Carol Lansbury. Knopf Publishing Group, $19.95 (537pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57438-7

Fascinating bits of mythology and history are woven into this well-crafted novel set during the 1920s and '30s amid the crumbling ruins of Sicily's ancient hill towns and on the rude, bustling frontier of Australia. Born to English and Sicilian parents whose love for each other shuts out the world, Gwen Harcourt di Marineo saves her own adoration for her best friend Bessie, an English girl who summers in Sicily. Gwen is barely touched by her mother's death, but the loss of Bessie nearly crushes her. Forced to leave Sicily, she embarks for Australia, where she re-creates herself as a hotelier of distinction, an enigmatic model and the promoter of her horribly narcissistic cousin Dolphi, star of vaudeville and radio. Despite these rebirths, the superstitions and maledictions of Sicily hang 'round her shoulders like a heavy cloak. Love eludes Gwen for the most part; unfortunately, shrill hysteria is the passion she and other characters often share. Lansbury's ( Felicity ) clever, vivid imagery and evocation of brooding gothic atmosphere do much to keep the narrative engrossing. 35,000 first printing. (Apr.)