A fictional memoir of offstage drama
Valerie Martin’s 1990 novel, “Mary Reilly,’’ a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the perspective of the doctor’s imagined housemaid, was a revelation. In it, Martin demonstrated how an author could meld imagination and research to practically create a new genre. In “Property,’’ a spare and magnificent novel about a plantation wife and the slave she loathes, she took on a real and large historical theme, showing through a simultaneously repellent and almost-sympathetic protagonist how oppression breeds further subjugation. Martin’s 2007 novel, “Trespass,’’ was another superb example of how to illuminate societal forces through interpersonal relationships, showing xenophobia and tribalism being played out on a global and familial level.
So it was with great anticipation that I started her newest novel, “The Confessions of Edward Day,’’ a fictional memoir whose dust jacket promised to reveal the lives of actors in the explosive theater scene of New York in the 1970s. Sadly, I finished it feeling baffled and disappointed at its small palette and so-what implications.
Edward Day is an aspiring actor with good looks, piercing blue eyes, and a dedication to emotional honesty. His commitment to acting was sealed at the age of 19 when his mother committed suicide and he “began to take an interest in my feelings as opposed to simply feeling them non-stop . . . for me, acting was an egress from unbearable sorrow and guilt.’’ Though earnest and high-minded, Edward is not above having fun, and on a summer weekend on the New Jersey shore he finds great pleasure in his blossoming fling with Madeleine, a sensual and talented actress. But this promising relationship nearly ends when late that night, Edward falls off a pier into rough water and almost drowns before being rescued by another aspiring actor, Guy Margate.
Guy is Edward’s doppelganger - remarkably similar in appearance, equally ambitious, and as avid in his pursuit of Madeleine. Edward takes an immediate and visceral dislike to his rescuer, finding him to be a sleazy braggart and a mediocre actor. Their professional rivalry and competition for Madeleine, enacted over the next 20 years, forms the spine of the story. Each encounter between them is increasingly rife with menace. Edward is artistically pure and committed to his craft, but he is also irresponsible. And though Guy is dislikable and flawed, he shows commitment to others that Edward lacks. Like an inversion of Wilde’s “Portrait of Dorian Gray,’’ Guy pays the price for Edward’s artistic integrity, and as Edward’s professional star rises, Guy’s looks and prospects steadily decay.
Though Edward’s narrative voice is somewhat stiff and remote, it is also witty, and I can’t fault the book for being boring. And along the way, Martin provides us with an interesting smattering of theory about method acting, a guide to Manhattan real estate in the 1970s, and some fine synopses of plays by Williams, Strindberg, and Chekhov. Clearly she has done her homework, but that’s precisely the problem: The novel reads more like she is passing on some facts she has learned than that she is applying some wisdom she has incorporated. Had her prior works not shown such ambition and delivered such powerful insights, I would have read this book with lower expectations. But that’s the perverse price of being so accomplished. Like Guy, Martin’s work suffers when she lowers her sights.
Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.