The Remedy, by Michelle Lovric, is a story about life in the underworld of London and Venice; it is set in the late eighteenth century.
The book is a sublime example of the novelist's art; I warmly recommend it to anyone with a taste for fiction and some interest in Europe and its history. And the book nicely illustrates, as we shall see, the plight of the contemporary writer.
The principal characters in The Remedy are two lovers: the successful criminal Valentine Greatrakes, whom no one but a foreigner would mistake for a gentleman; and Catarina Venier, who was born to a noble Venetian family but who finds herself working as a common actress under the name Mimosina Dolcezza. She also doubles as a spy for the Venetian authorities.
What we have here is a book which is difficult to categorise. It is a highly romantic story, but the book is by no means a typical romance. There are many crimes in it, including a murder mystery, the solution to which is provided in the last chapter; but it is not a whodunit. The story involves espionage, but we do not have here a thriller. It is a historical novel, obviously. And it is, to a point, literary; though not quite literary enough, I suspect, to appeal to purist readers of that genre; it is a tad too commercial for them, and yet not commercial enough for, say, the Josephine Cox fans.
In brief, we have here a book which some would call gothic (though not me because I don't really understand what that means), but which in my view fits neatly into no pigeonhole: it is, I suspect, a marketing person's nightmare, in that it is a traditional mainstream novel, magnificently well done. But how can you sell that, in today's market?
In order to write a book such as this, the writer must bring to the table (or the word-processor) a multitude of skills: a capacity for detailed research into period and place; a well-founded knowledge of human nature; an assured grasp of narrative technique; a mastery (or mistressy?) of the use of language; patience; stamina; self-belief; and a love for the characters portrayed -- even when, like the grossly overweight and spoilt teenager, Pevenche, they are difficult to love. It is a measure, by the way, of this writer's skill that, by the end of the book, I had come to feel affection and sympathy for Pevenche, who is as unlovable a character as ever stamped her petulant little foot; or, in Pevenche's case, big flat foot.
There are many high points in the book, and it is invidious to pick out any. But I particularly enjoyed the section which deals with the quack doctor -- Dottore Velena -- who sells amazing 'medicines' on the streets of London. The Dottore's sales spiel is as fine a piece of sustained brilliance in the use of language as you are likely to come across in many a long year of reading.
Overall, the story is told without haste, in prose of a languorous nature. It is an extraordinary display of virtuosity, featuring passion, hate, fear, revenge, brutality, and kindness. It is a pleasure and a delight to read; I would be proud, myself, to have written anything half as good.
And yet... And yet...
My reservations are not about the book -- I hope I have made that clear -- but about the cruel and heartless world in which it has to make its way. What, I wonder, will be its ultimate reception and fate?
The Remedy was first published by Virago in the UK in 2005, as a trade paperback. A hardback edition was published by Regan Books in New York later that year. The UK mass-market paperback comes out in May, the US one in October.
Reviews? Publishers Marketplace reveals none in the US. The author's own web site quotes the Sunday Times from the UK, and a few Australian papers; the Amazon.com entry quotes Publishers Weekly and Booklist. All are polite, even enthusiastic. But the book has not, it seems, set the world alight.
So. The author has done a prodigious amount of research (see the book's appendix). She has spent several hundred hours exercising her not inconsiderable talents. And while I have not had the cheek to ask her publisher or agent how many copies Virago have so far sold in the UK (and almost certainly wouldn't get a straight answer if I did), you would not surprise me if you told me that the publisher had struggled to sell a thousand copies so far.
And that, dear Reader, is what I meant when I said that this book illustrates, to a nicety, the plight of the modern writer. Michelle Lovric has written a book which is every bit as good as those by Sarah Waters (whom she admires); but unlike Sarah she has not yet taken off.
Of course, it might yet happen. The television boys might film The Remedy (but it's wickedly expensive to do these costume things). But at present, all this author has to show for her effort and talent is a couple of modest (one suspects) advances (UK and USA), plus the admiration and respect of a boring old man in Wiltshire.
Not a lot, is it?