When Alex Massolini's brother is killed in Vietnam, he drops out of Columbia University and leaves his conservative family behind for Capri to become secretary to Rupert Grant, a famous British novelist and poet who dominates the island like a latter -- day Prospero. Alex soon finds himself ensnared in a web of love affairs, friendships, and rivalries within the eccentric community that inhabits the idyllic beauty of the isolated Italian island.
The Apprentice Lover traces a young American's enchantment and disenchantment -- with his American past, his new European mentor, and the various inhabitants on an island famous for its characters.
Literary figures large and small populate this smoothly written coming-of-age novel by Parini (The Last Station) set on the island of Capri. Alex Massolino, raised by his mother to be the family's "brainy" boy, is a student at Columbia University when his brother, Nicky, "the lesser son," is killed in Vietnam in 1970. Troubled by Nicky's death and suffocated by his mother's attentions, Alex drops out and takes a secretary/apprentice job with famous Scots novelist and poet Rupert Grant on Capri. Grant, like Robert Graves, embodies his poetic theories in his sexual life: he lives with his wife, Vera, and two female "muses," Holly Hampton, a young blonde blueblood, and Marisa Lauro, a beautiful but disturbed Italian girl. Alex is soon sucked into the island's glitterati scene, where he meets real writers like Graham Greene and Gore Vidal, and is befriended by Dominick Bonano, a dead ringer for Mario Puzo. As the title suggests, Alex gets a sexual education, mooning over Holly but succumbing to Marisa's more accessible charms. Grant, an old satyr, seems to need Alex's rivalry to put an edge on his conquests. The stress on Alex, Holly and particularly Marisa takes its toll, and Alex leaves Capri on a sour note. His failure to gain much wisdom from his experiences makes his stay on the island seem rather hollow, though the emptiness is partly filled by his rereading of Nicky's Vietnam letters, which provide a respite from the decadent world of the Grants. Parini's perennial interest in literary biography is skillfully interwoven here with a theme that has absorbed writers since Henry James: what price does the American soul pay for European sophistication? (Mar.)Forecast: In a letter addressed to booksellers, Parini writes that The Apprentice Lover is more accessible than his earlier novels, and says he hopes it will attract a wider audience. He may very well be right the setting and cast list in particular should appeal to readers with even a glancing interest in literary glamour.
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-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 18, 2003
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Excerpt from The Apprentice Lover by Jay Parini
Surprising even myself, I dropped out of Columbia during my last term, in 1970, just three months short of graduation, and went to live on Capri. I left behind my college friends, my parents, and everything familiar in an attempt to cut loose from the overfilled barge of my youth, which had become too heavy to drag. My departure was hard on everyone, especially me, but I had no choice -- or that's how it seemed then.
It had been a terrible winter, and spring had so far been worse. I lay awake at night, disoriented, as if tumbling into a well, fading and falling. Alice with no Wonderland at the bottom of the hole. And nothing seemed to help: barbiturates, prayer, pot. The world, by day, was tinny and artificial, a 3-D movie watched from a seat in a darkened theater, looking in on life from outside, alternately depressed or anxious, always distracted, sure I would never live beyond the age of twenty-five. (Always a slight hypochondriac, I now read minor ailments -- overgrown pimples, tension headaches -- as signs of melanoma or brain cancer, thus giving my spiritual unease a convenient physical location.)
In calendar years, I was twenty-two, but emotionally I was younger. That winter and spring, I read a great deal, as usual, but everything seemed, overtly or covertly, about love or war, the two subjects that sat like deadweights on my chest. I marveled at the passion of Ovid in his love poems for Corinna, wondering what it might feel like to care so much about someone, full of a vaguely disembodied sexual longing that made me queasy at times, ill with dissatisfaction. I would have liked to make contact, physical and emotional, with some of the women at Columbia, but the effort seemed beyond me. On the subject of war, the rhetoric of Virgil struck me as verbiage, however stirring. I didn't care a feather about the fate of Rome or its empire. Caesar's Gallic wars were not mine. I'd had enough of wars, ancient and modern.
My only brother, Nicky, had been killed in Vietnam a few months before my departure. He died near Quang Tri, in winter, having volunteered for what his lieutenant in the obligatory letter to my parents called "a routine reconnaissance mission." He had stepped on a land mine, which meant you didn't get to see the body, or its remnants, when they shipped it home in a medically sealed bag. I can still see my poor father, standing bereft at the back of the church, shaking his head and fumbling with a rosary. Nicky had been dear to him, a son who had reflexively obeyed the call of his country, as he had, during the Second World War.
The steel casket was draped in a flag. They had played taps in the cemetery in Pittston, an honor guard standing by from the local VFW, where my father went most Saturday nights to play cards with old friends and fellow veterans, all of whom believed adamantly in the righteousness of the Vietnam War. "Nick was a real hero," the letter from the lieutenant had said, without elaboration, leaving the details (supplied by countless war movies) to our imaginations, which was probably just as well.
I knew something about Nicky's war and how it felt to him. He had taken to writing me letters from Vietnam -- the first real communication with him that I'd ever had -- and I knew exactly what he thought about this particular war. He hated it, and would have found the flag-draped casket deeply ironic. "This war is about nothing I understand or believe," he wrote. "The whole thing stinks. It's not just stupid, a well-intentioned adventure that somehow went wrong. It's fucking evil. And the worst evil is always one that follows from ignorance." Nicky had become a student of that ignorance, and took pleasure in going over the details with me.