ITALIAN FEVER

By Valerie Martin

Knopf. 259 pp. $22

Reviewed by Lauren Henderson

We've been seeing a lot of purple prose about authors' Italian summer homes, scattered with the occasional, already familiar Italian word (prosciutto, casa and the ubiquitous andiamo), padded with a few basic recipes from the relentlessly patronized locals. Nouveau colonialism, in short, much parodied by full-time English-speaking Tuscan residents, of whom I am one. But I was hoping for infinitely better things from Valerie Martin, a subtle and sophisticated novelist whom I have always greatly admired.

The protagonists of Martin's new novel are eternal outsiders, detached yet acutely involved with the events they describe. Who better than she to bring a fresh perspective? So I was dismayed and disappointed to find the customary array of hoary cliches popping up in swift succession. By page 67 Italian Fever already has its full complement of Latin lovers, smelly peasants and jaded aristocrats ("The old man had the bearing and regard of a raptor. The son . . . looked as decadent and as full of guile as a snake"). There's even the curvaceous village maiden, "a flashing-eyed, voluptuous young woman, her thick black hair only partially controlled by a strip of red ribbon," given to leaning provocatively over the aforementioned old raptor. Goodness knows whom Martin based this on: Sophia Loren in 1950? All the voluptuous young women in Chianti have either starved themselves down to the bone or cut off most of their hair, dyed the rest of it green and donned cargo pants and Caterpillar boots. As for the flashing eyes -- well, the heroin habit so prevalent round here dulls them down a little.

Aficionados of the genre will recognize the ultimate cliche, from A Room With a View right through to the execrable Stealing Beauty: the Anglo-American heroine who undergoes the mandatory sexual flowering which all foreign women are traditionally guaranteed in Italy -- money back from the tourist board, one assumes, if not completely satisfied. The Forsterishly named Lucy has no sooner gotten off the plane than she meets what the blurb describes as the "devastating, married Massimo." I followed the progress of their affair with a sense of inevitability as jaded as that of a typical local aristocrat. Martin even uses the phrase "erotic awakening." Are English and American men really that bad in bed? Impossible. Are all Italian men so earth-shatteringly good? Magari. (That's Italian for "I wish".)

And yet Lucy, in the three decades of her life, has apparently had such appalling North American sex that a few Italian rolls in the hay alter her perspective forever. " `I am changed,' she sobbed. ` . . . Do you think I ever spent a night like that in my life? And what do you think the odds are that I'll ever have another, Massimo? . . . The same odds as that Jesus Christ is about to knock on that door.' " Lucy has been brought to Italy by the death of her employer, DV, a hack writer who rented a house in Tuscany in order to finish his next book. Disappointed in love, abandoned by Catherine, the artist girlfriend who came with him, he turned to drink and, wandering around one night, lost himself, like Dante, in a dark wood.

Under the influence of Italy, not to mention the local wine, DV started a book that might actually have been good. Unfortunately and true to form, the Old World may provide inspiration, but it is also irredeemably rotting and corrupt. This point was neatly illustrated when DV found in the dark wood not Virgil but a nasty death in the form of an open sewage tank.

Martin counterposes poor DV with Catherine. Believing that the true artist is above any form of morality, Catherine -- immune to sentiment or love -- has exploited her beauty to gain funding for her work. The only Americans who succeed in Italy, Martin implies, are those as corrupt as the degenerate locals. Lucy, having "peered tremulously into a world where only art has value and no moral laws apply," loses no time in racing back to America.

Unfortunately Tuscany has had an effect on the author diametrically opposite to the one it had on DV. This is the only bad book she has ever written. Occasional flashes of her usual perceptiveness indicate what Italian Fever might have been if she had thrown out all the cliches and started again: Her summary of Massimo's personality, in one long, exquisitely written paragraph, is perfect, nailing a certain type of Italian man with such exactitude that Italian friends to whom I read it exclaimed repeatedly in admiration. But her concept of Italy as a beautiful Venus flytrap, eating foreigners alive, has proved self-fulfilling. There are only traces here of the allusive complexity that characterizes her other books. Martin has come down herself with the true Italian fever -- the Anglo-American addiction to every lazy stereotype going.

Lauren Henderson is the author of "Black Rubber Dress," to be published in paperback this month.