Jenny Kidd. Laury A. Egan. Vagabondage Press. 2012. Paperback. 206 pages.
Is there anyone but must repress a secret thrill, on arriving in Venice for the first time . . .”—Thomas Mann
A young American artist, Jenny Kidd, has left a dull job and her overbearing parents behind to come to Venice. In New York, she feels trapped between her parents’ expectations, her need to make a living, and her desire to paint and teach or illustrate. In Venice hoping that her paintings might provide a livelihood, she also explores her curiosity about lesbianism and her own sexuality. Since coming out requires desire plus opportunity, the story opens with both. While in the Guggenheim Collection, standing captivated before Kandinsky’s painting “White Cross,” Jenny meets a British woman, Randi, who invites her to a masquerade party at Palazzo Barbon, and thus leads her on a chilling adventure.
While at the party, Jenny dances with several people who are masked. Often she can’t tell if her dance partner is male or female. Despite her curiosity and the amount of alcohol she consumes, she is somewhat surprised by her powerful reaction to holding a female, in an embrace while dancing. At the end of the night, feeling the effects of too much alcohol, she staggers home and into bed. The next morning she discovers that her apartment has been burglarized. She immediately suspects Randi, the one person who knew she wouldn’t be home that night. The first thing she has to do is make a report to the police and then talk to her parents to get enough money to stay abroad. Her father insists that she return home, but Jenny convinces her mother to send more money. She stays in the city, captivated by the atmosphere, architecture, art, and old-world streets and waterways. But more importantly, she meets an art dealer who likes her paintings and asks to see more.
The next evening, Jenny finds Caterina Barbon, who along with her brother, Sebastiano, hosted the party. She explains that her things were stolen. While she finds Caterina attractive, at that time, Jenny is more concerned with locating Randi Carroll. Caterina is flirtatious, but not much help, claiming that she doesn’t know Randi very well. Later Jenny is visited by the police and learns that a woman who was at the party has been murdered, her body found floating in a canal. Jenny is frightened by this, but by then she has started a portrait of Catrina Barbon, and under her spell passion overshadows everything else.
The beginning chapters of the book are filled with desire, seduction, and sexual obsession. We see Jenny’s loneliness in the foreign environment of Venice. But this isn’t the formula woman-out-of-her-element-with-limited-resources story. If there is a flaw, it is in the careful and intricate construction as the author gradually sets up what is to come, but then the pace picks up. The plot becomes precise and at times dizzying in its twists and turns. I know this sounds cliché, but I read from the middle of this book to the end in one sitting although that was not my plan. Like falling over forward, by the halfway mark, I found it impossible to stop.
Jenny has much to learn; we know she loves art but doesn’t know if she’s good enough, we know she’s attracted to women but doesn’t know if she’s lesbian. As she seeks answers, everything becomes much more sinister and compelling, and Jenny, along with the reader, is drawn into a dark, dangerous, and erotic world of insanity at the Barbon’s home. With Caterina and her brother, nothing is as it seems. We, along with Jenny, ask ourselves if small things are imaginary, as each little incident, a locked door, an intruder in the night, and so on are rationalized or explained away by the pure, long note of love. By the time Jenny realizes she is trapped and will be the next murder victim, her predicament seems hopeless.
This is Laury Egan’s first novel although she’s published two books of poetry and a short story collection. She does not abandon the rich language of the shorter piece. Descriptions of Venice: the green, milky canals, bridges, streets, cafes and cuisine are vivid. Not only does this book offer a riveting story, but Egan’s sentences have a cadence, an exquisite texture, which will satisfy most book lovers.