This Italian novelist's debut (The House on Moon Lake, 1986) was a winner--a spooky, high-stakes story about a casualty of the literary racket; in this second novel, Duranti surveys a group of well-to-do Tuscans on their ancient estate one summer weekend, but the tone is uncertain (fitfully comic) and the stakes negligible. The estate is facing "the abdication of an old queen," as matriarch Violante Santini works on a plan to ensure its smooth running after her death. Her husband, and her oldest son Filippo, are long dead; her younger son Leopoldo oversees the 300-year-old paper-mill. His childless marriage to Cynthia ("the prom queen from Columbus, Ohio") is on the rocks; Violante is figuring how best to repair it. She is equally concerned about her other daughter-in-law, Filippo's widow Lavinia, who gratefully allowed Violante to raise her son Nicola (now a student in America), for Lavinia has always been a child herself, feckless and mercurial. Violante hopes somehow to restore the son to the mother, and thus give Lavinia the authority to succeed her. An interested spectator to all this is the 55-year-old Aldo, neighbor and family friend; the art forger-turned-scholar has been hopelessly in love with Lavinia for 30 years. The wild card is a sexy young stranger called Marco, who claims to be a friend of Nicola's and throws everybody into a tizzy. Duranti seems to be shopping for a theme here: the hot-blooded outsider who ignites a community; the vanity of human wishes (Violante's plan); the rivalry of Old World and New (Lavinia sees the American Cynthia as "a precious but poorly set stone"). But these are outlines, mere husks; the author settles for a mechanical resolution in which Marco is the unwitting agent of Leopoldo and Cynthia's reconciliation, and Lavinia Finally falls for Aldo. More than anything, an ill-proportioned work. Scarcely longer than a novella, it encompasses enough material for an ample novel; it lavishes precious words on Aldo's past, while skimping Leopoldo/Cynthia's present; and so on. A talented writer is marking time.