There are two kinds of fever in Valerie Martin's graceful and gently amusing novel, set in Rome and the hills of Tuscany: the shaky, physiological kind and the romantic kind. Martin gives us a little too much of the former; her central character spends a good portion of the book's first third shivering, sweating and hallucinating through a mysterious illness, and its duration seems as interminable for us as it is for her. But once Martin gets to the good stuff -- that character's affair with a handsome, consistently puzzling Italian -- "Italian Fever" starts to heat up.
Martin's novel is a curious little thing, both an airy diversion (a mystery, a romance and something of a ghost story rolled into one) and a tentative novel of ideas. Her main character, Lucy Stark, works in New York as an assistant to a wildly successful hack novelist known to all as DV. When DV dies suddenly -- he falls, apparently, into a well in Tuscany, where he's been living, working and drinking himself into oblivion -- she's summoned to Italy to settle his affairs. There she meets, and takes an immediate dislike to, the members of the Cini family, the former owners of the house DV had been renting: They live in the neighboring villa, and they seem to hold some of the keys to the mystery of his death. When Lucy later travels to Rome -- coaxed there in the service of amore by her dashing new Italian friend -- she also meets the beautiful and charismatic painter Catherine Bultman, with whom DV had been obsessed before he died. It's up to Lucy to untangle her new acquaintances' intertwined stories and motives.
But of course, "Italian Fever" is mostly the story of Lucy's self-discovery, and Martin is at her best sketching out the way traveling in a new country -- and, better yet, finding love there -- can bring about a subtly dazzling transformation in a person. Lucy, a little insecure and probably much prettier than she thinks she is, is one of those young women who toil away in the lower levels of the publishing world but are really smarter and more perceptive than most of the people around them. When she first arrives in Italy, she's timid and polite, but when the man who's been assigned as her guide begins bragging about his lineage -- "My family has been in Rome for a thousand years" -- she shows her true colors by volleying with "Any popes?" A fan of Bernini, she makes an effort to see some of the sculptor's work in Rome, and she finds herself moved to tears at the sight of his "Apollo and Daphne," which shows the transformation of Daphne into a laurel tree just as her pursuer reaches out to embrace her:
Apollo, too, was frozen in a moment of revelation. He couldn't see what was happening, for he was behind her, in hot pursuit, and he had at last caught up with her. Everything he knew came to him through the hand he had slipped about her waist, which was still flesh, but altered. His expression was a mixture of triumph -- he had captured her -- shock -- she was not what he thought -- and something else -- was it sympathy or just resignation? He was a god himself; this was a game for him, one he now knew he had lost. Her flesh beneath his fingers looked soft and impressionable still. Could he feel the blood thickening to sap, the convulsions racking her heart, the collapse of her lungs upon the last gasp of oxygen that would be of any use to her?
At first Lucy is annoyed with herself because the sculpture reminds her of her own lover; later, she becomes even more despondent when she realizes there's "nothing marvelous in her appreciation of this work One would have to be a stone oneself not to be moved by it; that was the whole point." But this section of Martin's book is simply lovely, an intuitive exploration of the way great art can work magical but also frustrating transformations. In that respect, "Italian Fever" is about a third kind of fever -- one whose heat can last even longer than that of the other two.