We discussed The Night Villa by Carol Goodman at our book club meeting yesterday. I've read quite a few of Goodman's other novels--The Drowning Tree, The Ghost Orchid, The Lake of Dead Languages, and The Seduction of Water--and I love how atmospheric they are.
The eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried a city and its people, including their treasures and secrets. Classics professor Sophie Chase travels to the beautiful island of Capri in to unravel the secrets of one unusual household, immersing herself in a culture simultaneously fascinating and frightening.
Beneath layers of volcanic ash lies the Villa della Notte, home to first-century nobles who engaged in pagan rituals and a slave girl named Iusta whose life may have ended during the eruption—or may have helped to alter the course of Italy’s religious history. As Sophie and her team piece together Iusta’s story, they unearth a subterranean labyrinth and a set of invaluable antique documents believed lost to the ages. But for both women, suspicion, fear, and danger lurk in the tunnels and chambers beneath the estate. As Iusta races to escape Vesuvius’s impending fury, Sophie rushes to uncover what happened to Iusta before all traces of her life disappear—or are erased.
With parallel modern/historical storylines and some unexpected twists, The Night Villa provided lots to discuss: the role and treatment of women during the Classical period, how difficult it was to figure out who the "bad" and "good" guys were during the story (I'll admit that I didn't suspect the real informer), the role of religion in the story, why certain characters acted the way that they did, the portrayal of the ancient manuscript deciphering and translation (and how authentic it was), how we left about the opening of the novel and whether that scene was really necessary, our take on Phineas (the Roman traveler whose scroll the team has uncovered), the ancient cult and its rites, etc.
One of the most interesting things to me was the Pythagorean cult (Tetractys), that features predominantly in the current-day portion of the book. After finishing The Night Villa, I did a little research because I wondered whether the Tetractys was a real cult. It's not, which makes Goodman's imagining of it all the more wonderful.
The book starts out with a bang, then proceeds agonizingly slowly, picking up once Sophie is in Italy. I can't say that I loved The Night Villa, but it's definitely interesting and I have recommended it to at least one classicist in my life.
For another take on The Night Villa, see this blog post by another one of our book club members.