Set in the early 1920s, in the middle of Etruscan country north of Rome, this wildly romantic first novel unburies the nearly lost genre of the literary Gothic. Told through alternating points of view and diary entries, it recounts the story of Harriet Sackett, an independent lady traveler and photographer who leaves the staid society of England in order to photograph and research Etruscan tombs on behalf of the London Theosophical Society. Still stinging from a tragic love affair, she rents a dilapidated farmhouse in the wild Italian countryside and falls in love with the mysterious count, Federigo Del Re. After months pass without correspondence, [End Page 199] Harriet's British cousin, Stephen, and his wife, Sarah, begin worrying about her welfare and send their housekeeper, Mrs. Parsons, to Italy to "help." Mrs. Parsons finds Harriet emaciated, near death, completely alone. She telegrams Stephen and Sarah, who come to rescue Harriet. As they wait for Harriet to recover enough so that they can take her back to England, each character reads her diary, unraveling the passionate mystery of what actually led to their friend's downfall.
In the tradition of Ann Radcliffe's classic novel, The Italian, The Etruscan sustains a heightened emotional level and mystery throughout. It revels in the details of dark romance, mining images of the lush, Italian setting. The Etruscan forest teems with wild boars and porcupines, hidden ancient sarcophagi, ruined churches, murky sulphuric springs; Harriet's dilapidated farmhouse is filled with old, gilded mirrors that reflect sunlit gardens by day, and reveal the soul's most private fears by night. By using the local peasant mythology, Lappin creates a rich and shifting reality, echoing the book's Gothic ambivalence between darkness and light. Harriet's Italian housekeeper, Maria, refuses to kill the spiders that inhabit the farmhouse because she associates them with earning; poisonous scorpions often reveal themselves as innocent spots of mold clambering down the walls. This uncertainty between good and evil can be found in the local characters as well, especially the Count Federico Del Re. When Harriet first describes him to her cousin Sarah, she calls him "part wild boar, part porcupine, part bear," but when he is first seen in the flesh, he appears to be a gentle, shabby peasant who rescues Harriet from a fall in the Etruscan tombs. Later, while seducing her on a wild mushroom hunt, he splits a pomegranate in half as deftly as the king of the underworld, encouraging Harriet to eat it, seeds and all. After the count vanishes from her life, Harriet spies him in the woods while she is out walking. Bathing in a yellow sulfur pool, practicing his swordsmanship while in the nude, he seems both ugly satyr and magnificent, pleasure seeking Etruscan god.
Like Radcliffe's enduring classic, The Etruscan transcends the Gothic conventions, portraying a complex heroine who appeals absolutely to contemporary sensibilities. In some ways, Harriet is the perfect Byronic hero. A defiant and melancholy orphan, she falls prey to violent desires. Hopelessly bound to the dark and sensual Federico Del Re, she remains doomed to obey him beyond the grave. But she is no frail ingénue. An experienced world traveler approaching middle age, an independent artist, she has "dedicated her life to capturing fleeting and vanishing moments in her photographs." She remains skeptical of all "those eerie Etruscan things" even as she is seduced by them. Through Harriet's character, Lappin explores the central preoccupations of artistic endeavor: Can a balance remain between reason and emotion, artistic freedom and decorum? How does one distinguish among imagination, hallucination and madness?
The basic pleasure of this book lies in the suspension of disbelief, the heightened emotional urgency, the mystery, the lush and mystical scenery. [End Page 200] But unlike Mother Radcliffe, whose passages of Italian landscapes were notoriously inaccurate, Lappin has lived in and studied her melancholy terrain. A longtime resident of Italy, she approaches its details with the eye of an educated scholar, using the Etruscan race as an umbrella metaphor for her novel's central questions about the mutability of history and the ambiguous nature...