A fastidious first novel of objets d’art unearths ancestral secrets of a once-great Philadelphia house.
The estate sale of Villa Calpurnia (pretentiously named after Caesar’s conniving wife) brings together a well-mannered, faintly sinister cast of characters to bicker over the possessions of its deceased owner, Maribel Davies, a painter of aristocratic pedigree but bohemian tastes. Maribel, elderly and suffering from breast cancer, has died under cloudy circumstances, casting a whiff of suspicion around surviving loved ones such as her late-30s layabout substance-abusing son Coby; her niece and executor Nina, whom she raised like a spoiled daughter; her weepy lover Roberto; and nosy, protective neighbor Peg, who over the hedge watches the comings-and-goings at Calpurnia. The estate liquidizer, Elizabeth Oliver, a mid-40s blond divorcée struggling to make a respectable living, has been hired by the family to make order of Maribel’s Victoriana, which she does with expertly fussy thoroughness; in fact, Elizabeth’s reluctant contacts with louche art dealer Ellios, who once made a pass at her, leads to their secret discovery of Maribel’s cache of erotic drawings, supposedly the work of the fashionable portrait artist of the day, Lipscomb, once a lover of Maribel’s. Each of these characters has his or her own say from one stream-of-consciousness chapter to the next, until Elizabeth’s touchingly normal story takes precedence as she tries to maintain her stiff-upper-lip cordiality in the face of Ellios’s venal innuendo. Shockingly, Scott’s well-spoken Main Liners tend to lapse into similar stock phrases (“tongues will wag,” “let’s be honest”), and all begin to sound like the same frozen Episcopalian that Elizabeth is—except for the deliciously villainous Ellios, whose courtly machinations are skillfully delineated. With mastery, Scott obsessively chronicles surfaces—she tends to tell versus show—without delving too deeply into the messy inner lives of her tidy characters. Overall, she achieves a fetishistic catalogue of objects, to the detriment of story and suspense.
A debut novel of impeccable manners that will appeal nicely to the artistic set.