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Review: The Invitation, by Lucy Foley
Little, Brown, 2016. 426 pp. $26

Hal Jacobs, a struggling English ex-pat journalist in Rome, crashes a soirée given by a contessa, the first time he has been social in months. It’s 1953, close enough to the world war so that the city and its inhabitants still bear wounds, Hal included. By the evening’s end, however, he’s charmed the contessa — who knows perfectly well he wasn’t invited — and a mysterious, beautiful woman who, in their moment of mutual vulnerability, hints at the scars she does her best to hide. Their brief tryst leaves such a deep impression on Hal that he believes he’s experienced the only warmth and happiness of his life — or has he simply loaded the circumstances with more emotional freight than they can bear?

Remains of the Roman Forum, 2012 (courtesy Bert Kaufmann, Roermond, Netherlands, via Wikimedia Commons)

Months later, however, he sees the woman again. The contessa has managed to fund the film she was trying to produce — that had been the soirée’s purpose, to assemble angels who might invest in it — and because Hal knows the cinema, she engages him to write a magazine story about it, an assignment he gets through her contacts. The stars, director, and others associated with the film will revisit the coastal location where it was shot, and Hal is to pen glitzy, frothy nonsense about this gathering as publicity for the release. Since much of the money to make the film comes from Frank Truss, he’s there with his young wife, Stella — the woman Hal met in Rome.

The invitation to a Mediterranean setting, themes of sexual passion and emotional honesty, and lost souls searching for what they’ve never had reminds me of The Magus, one of John Fowles’s early novels. Another similarity is a parallel narrative, but this one goes back several centuries rather than decades, which Hal reads about in an old diary. But Foley does better than Fowles, I think, in two crucial respects: Her female characters are fully drawn, not merely sex objects, and there’s less literary artifice.

What there is, I could do without — the prologue adds nothing, and I skipped the parallel narrative of the diary. The real action, between Hal and Stella, needs no mirroring or adornment. Foley not only takes love at first sight and makes it credible, she skillfully uncovers layers of past and secret hurts for both principal characters. I’m not sure why Stella’s sections are first-person, whereas Hal’s are in third; does that difference accomplish anything? But two unspoken questions lurk constantly within the narrative, and it’s amazing how much tension they create: What will happen between Hal and Stella, and what will result?

That tension emanates from the characters themselves, much less so the antagonist. Frank Truss lives up to his name as Stella’s sole support, but she pays a heavy price. It’s not so much that Frank likes to get his own way; it’s that when he’s around, there is no other way. He’s menacing enough to serve his narrative necessity, but as a character, he’s too one-sided, the only flawed portrayal in the book. Foley tries to rescue him somewhat at the end, and though I like the shifts in perspective that she creates, they don’t go far enough. You know Frank’s a bad guy from day one, and the pretense he has of altruistic commitment is so obviously pasted on, it’s no surprise when it’s proven a sham.

By contrast, though, Foley does a terrific job with the lesser characters in attendance. I particularly like the film director, Gaspari, a lonely man, humble in his artistic gifts, and the contessa, whose warm-hearted, tolerant approach to life is very appealing. Foley also sets her scenes with care, as with Hal’s crashing the contessa’s soirée:

Torches have been lit in brackets about the entrance, and Hal can see several gleaming motor cars circling like carp, disclosing guests in their evening finery.… He is not prepared for this. His suit is well-made but old and worn with use, faded at the elbows of the jacket and frayed at the pockets of the trousers. He has lost weight, too, since he last wore it, thanks to his poor diet of coffee and the occasional sandwich.… When he first wore it he had been much broader about the chest and shoulders. Now he feels almost like a boy borrowing his father’s clothes.

With prose like this, Foley delivers her keen psychological insights, connecting closely with the reader on every page. The Invitation is well worth reading.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.