Book review

Where does history stop and invention begin?

That’s the question guiding Valerie Martin’s splendidly wily new novel, “I Give it To You.”

Narrator Jan Vidor is a cool-tempered college professor and the author of “a few mildly successful works of historical fiction.” While arranging via email to spend a month at an isolated villa in Tuscany, she’s informed by the property’s owner, Beatrice Salviati Bartolo Doyle, that if she’s looking for “old stories,” she’s definitely coming to the right place.

Beatrice spent her childhood summers at the Villa Chiara, but after World War II, she broke away from her family to pursue an academic career in the U.S. On school breaks, however, she returns to her ancestral home.

It’s here, in 1983, that the two women first meet. They hit it off, and it isn’t long before Jan is getting the scoop on the villa’s history and Beatrice’s family background, going back to the first half of the 20th century. That obviously includes life under Mussolini.

“It was chaos,” Beatrice tells her new friend. “No one was safe, no one could be trusted. … People stopped taking sides and just tried to survive. My mother’s brother, a poor madman who could barely speak, was shot in a skirmish in our driveway.”

“Wow,” Jan remarks. “That’s quite a story.”

“Do you like it?” Beatrice asks — and then makes an offer that lends the book its title: “I give it to you.”

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Beatrice’s “gift” is a complex one. The more that Jan learns about it, the more cagily she studies her surroundings. “It was,” she muses, “as if the heart-stopping beauty and serenity of the scene before me was a scrim, and a change of light might reveal a very different world, one of dark terror, brooding, cruelty, and suffering.”

Jan’s visits to the Villa Chiara continue over the years (this is a novel that revels in its long perspective) and as the book proceeds, Martin alternates between Jan’s first-person view and a broader, third-person narrative vividly recounting events from Beatrice’s family’s history. These third-person passages, one assumes, could be excerpts from a new historical novel Jan is writing.

Shifting between past and present, Martin delivers a group portrait that includes Beatrice’s mother, whom Beatrice has never been able to please but whom she recognizes as “the only competent member of the family”; her Uncle Marco, a gung-ho Mussolini enthusiast who squandered the family fortune; gentle, doomed Uncle Salvio, who succumbed to feverish religiosity after his father prohibited him from marrying a woman of lower class; and two powerless aunts who circumvent the strictures laid down by Marco and his father as best they can.

In the present day, Beatrice shares the villa with her now-aged mother and her cousins: sardonic psychiatrist Luca, who wonders why Jan is digging into all this unpleasant history (“Are there no American scandals to investigate?”), and tearful, neurotic Mimma, who clearly could never survive on her own.

Additionally, there are the villa’s servants and handymen, at least one of whom “knows more about this family than they know about themselves.” Beatrice’s personal history also includes a brief marriage to an Irish American would-be writer from Cape Cod, Patrick Doyle, who thinks Italy just can’t compare to his own little corner of Massachusetts. He and Beatrice have a grown-up son who doesn’t have much faith in his mother’s judgment.

Martin’s prose, while effortlessly readable, can take deliciously unexpected turns — for instance, when Jan recounts her first meeting with Beatrice’s dismissive mother: “Her eyes flickered over my form, landing nowhere. It was like being vacuumed.”

As enticing as the Salviati family’s history is, it’s the sense of a game being played on multiple levels that lends “I Give It to You” its deepest powers of seduction. Martin alerts us early on, after Jan’s tetchy exchanges with psychiatrist Luca, that Jan has high standards when it comes to analyzing people’s behavior. People in Luca’s profession, she believes, aren’t up to the task. “Their reductive representation of human psychological complexity,” she says, “offends me as a writer.”

The questions that stir her — “Who are you? How did you get here? How much of it was choice and how much accident?” —are the forces that drive the novel. Jan’s authorly powers seem well suited to the stories that Beatrice drops in her lap. But as the book circles toward the death of Uncle Salvio in the Villa Chiara’s driveway, its suspense has less to do with specific events disclosed than with the uncertainty as to how the story will land. After all, when you give someone a gift — think of a model offering to sit for a portraitist — certain expectations may come with it.

Martin makes the most of those expectations.

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I Give It to You” by Valerie Martin, Doubleday, 289 pp., $27.95