Dear Mrs. Goodman,
When I got an ARC of your latest book, “The Night Villa,” I had no idea of what to expect. But it sounded intriguing and I put it in my TBR short stack. After all, one doesn’t find heroines who are Classics Professors every day of the week.
I love books which open new avenues of thought and which make me want to begin investigating things from them. I adore books which teach me new things or add to my knowledge base. “The Night Villa” does both. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the famous historical eruption of Mt. Vesuvius? Who hasn’t at least seen the names Pompeii and Herculaneum? The fact that processes are now available to allow modern researchers to “read” the carbonized papyrus rolls that were buried by the pyroclastic flows is amazing. That you’ve taken this and used it as the basis for your novel is inventive to say the least.
Several reviews have described the book as an academic thriller as well as one which, due to the inclusion of classical references, is suited to more literary readers. Though I decry the inferred elitism and snobbery this last bit brings to mind, it was refreshing to read a book which makes use of your classics education. Parents urging their offspring to major in “useful” areas of study should take note; Latin majors can use their degrees to earn a living!
What worked for me in this book:
- The heroine. Sophie Chase comes alive from the beginning. And since this is in first person POV, that’s important. I can see this woman teaching her classes at UT, learning how to schedule her office hours to avoid the heat and whittle out the less dedicated, stopping by a UBS to find a needed volume of Phineus Aulus, desperately trying to reel her boyfriend back from the clutches of the cult he’s become involved in. She makes some mistakes in her personal and professional life but to me that keeps her from becoming a Mary Sue. She has her moments of jealousy and inadequacy, she’s identified too much with the 1st century slave woman she wrote about in her thesis, she got involved with a professor years ago but she’s also an approachable character I wouldn’t mind sharing a bottle of crisp white wine with as I plumb the depths of her knowledge.
- The settings – first at UT in Texas then in Italy. I felt the heat of an early morning in Austen and a hot afternoon in Naples. I could see the dust rising from the excavations in Herculaneum and the shimmering blue of the bay it was built near. I want to go swimming in the grotto under the Villa della Notte and if that doesn’t actually exist then you certainly make me believe it’s there.
- The technology. I hadn’t heard about the multispectral imaging now being used to reveal the ink on ancient papyrus scrolls. To be honest, at first I wondered if you weren’t making this up since it seemed just too amazing to be true. But I tip my hat to you for incorporating this real world tech into your story.
- The Tetraktys cult. Again, I think this is a wonderful use of your knowledge of the classics married to the needs of the story. Ditto with the ancient mystery rites.
- Overall, I think you did a great job of smoke screening the ultimate villain. Given the small cast of characters, that’s no mean feat.
And now what didn’t work so well for me:
- I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a great fan of conspiracy theory books. Too much must be taken on faith and too many dominoes have to fall just right for these plotlines to hang together for the length of the story. There are some things here such as
the initial telephone messages and Sophie being able to decipher the meaning behind the tiles left for herthat are too far fetched to stand much post reading thought.
- The degree of detail in the lost scrolls of the character of Phineus Aulus. Wow, this guy must have had some kind of shorthand system going (and for all I know maybe did exist) to be able to put down such a wealth of detail in the often short periods of time available for him to do this. Also, the last scroll found. Without going into details and providing spoilers, it’s just too neat an ending, too amazing that this would survive for almost 2000 years and be found just when it was needed, too clean a wrap up of the remaining questions Sophie has.
- I think some readers will not want to follow you down the (slight) paranormal trail involving Odette. I got impatient with this later in the book. Yet I adored the character of Odette with her down home wisdom and advice.
So obviously more aspects of the book clicked into place for me than not. I was caught up in the final moments of both the contemporary action and as pissed off as Sophie when the day to day imaging of the ancient scrolls abruptly cut off just when it was getting to the good bits. Your use of classical references, especially during the escape scenes in the grotto, was inspired. And anyone who thinks using dried old scrolls as the basis of a thriller will lead to a tame yawner of a book, needs to check out the erotic history of Pompeii and Herculaneum. B