‘The Night Villa’ is an example of how action/mystery books should be written. For once, after reading several books of this genre, I felt I could have picked the lead character out of a lineup if I needed to.
University of Texas (Austin campus) Classics Professor Sophie Chase has some personal baggage which makes it easy for her to identify with one of her favorite students, Agnes Hancock (yes, I did find the name Agnes for a character that is supposed to be one of those drop-dead blonde Texas sex kittens looking types a bit off-putting – my apologies to all Agneses who take offense that the first thing I think of when I hear the name Agnes is not an attractive woman but someone who has a tendency to nag). After all, Agnes has just broken up with another classics student of whom she was attracted because of his intelligence and interests in ancient Roman culture, although he appeared to be the type of lad she isn’t supposed to fall for. When this relationship comes to a tragic conclusion both Professor Chase and Agnes find themselves forever tied together emotionally by the event.
The story then travels from the campus in Austin to the town of Herculaneum in Italy which was covered by volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius blew in 79 A. D. Both the professor and her student are drawn there by the story of a slave girl named Iusta whose unusual tale was told by eighteen wax tablets that were found in a Herculaneum villa. What they know about Iusta includes; one, she sued for her freedom after the master who set her mother free died and his wife proclaimed that Iusta was born before the mother was free (thus making Iusta a slave because of her mother’s status at the time of her birth) and two, that Iusta was well educated for one born both female and a slave.
Also within the story are wax scrolls allegedly dealing with mysteries surrounding ancient religious rites that a powerful underground pagan cult, that both women have indirect/direct ties to, is interested in obtaining.
I’m finding Goodman’s book hard to describe because I don’t want to give much away because it was such an interesting read. It was informative about ancient Eastern fringe religious rites as it was about early Christianity without seeming to exert an effort in trying to overload readers with unnecessary details. Further, I appreciated that Goodman used some elements that could be described as ‘other worldly’ without over doing it. It gave the novel some nice surreal moments.
My only complaint is that I found the ending thusly – thrilling, thrilling, then anti-climatic (kind of how I felt at the conclusion of finals during college). Yet, overall I thought the book was a better than average read that zipped along with some impressive writing. For instance, these paragraphs were taken when Sophie is reflecting back to the most important relationship in her adult life which ended after she gave birth to a premature daughter who didn’t live. Her boyfriend, Ely, whom she loses to the before mentioned cult, has taken her back East to meet his parents (there were both living in Austen, Texas at the time). Like her, who lost her mother in a freak accident, Ely lost an older brother. Early in their relationship they realized that their shared loss of a close relative while very young is a bonding agent for their relationship.
There was never any question of me taking the other bed – Paul’s bed. I lay awake all night, clinging to the edge of Ely’s narrow bed, staring up at the multicolored planets spinning in the breeze from the open window, and trying to believe in Ruth and Howie Markowitz’s vision of our future. I would have been willing then, to give up the Ph.D., M’Lou’s proximity, good Mexican food, and mild winters if it meant I could keep Ely, but I knew that the vision of that life was as far from reality as those Styrofoam balls were from being real planets. I’d felt some hope when I saw that Ely really seemed to like his parents, to want to please them, but then I remembered the way Ruth’s face had looked when she’d forced herself to say her dead son’s name. Ely would have seen that look every day of his life. He would have heard, too, the muffled weeping I heard that night coming from his parents’ bedroom next door. He’d have tried to do everything he could to make them happy – been an A+ student in the subject his father taught and that Paul had been good at, eaten everything on his plate – but he also would have known that he would always fall short. They would never be purely happy. Always the shadow of that lost child would have fallen over any chance of that. No matter what Ely ever achieved, it was not in his power to make them happy. It was a failing I knew something about, having realized myself at the age ten that I hadn’t been enough to keep my mother home – or to keep her alive.
When I turned on my side, I was looking at the other bed: Paul’s bed. There was a shallow depression in the center the shape and size of a thirteen-year-old boy would have made scrunched up into the fetal position. I stared at that spot all night until I thought I had its shape and size memorized. (pages 84-85)
For me at least, I thought Goodman’s writing was more indicative of a novel that primarily focuses on emotions and relationships, not necessarily a mystery thriller, which I have to admit was a double treat. Thus I give this book the rare recommendation of being something that would be just as enjoyable as a summer beach read as it would cuddled under a blanket while snow is on the ground.