THE APPRENTICE LOVER is lucky to have a riveting protagonist like Alex Massolini. Insecure despite his talents, sexually frustrated --- though willing partners seem to be in abundance --- Alex never fails to engage the reader. Jay Parini's sixth novel is a richly compelling departure from his more scholarly work, such as acclaimed biographies of Robert Frost and John Steinbeck.
After his brother is killed in the jungles of Vietnam, Alex drops out of Columbia University just short of his degree. He escapes to Capri, Italy, to sort out his feelings of grief. Guilt is mingled with this grief, as his parents can't understand why he would forsake his education in favor of bohemian wanderings. With a job arranged with Rupert Grant, a renowned Scots writer, Alex tries to come out of his shell on the island, a paradise with many pleasures to be had. Grant's permissive wife Vera, a cookbook author and chef, ignores her husband's frequent dalliances with nubile young "research assistants" installed at Villa Clio and hopes to initiate a few intrigues all her own.
Alex expects the months at the Villa Clio to heal his heartbreak over his brother's death --- a loss he reveals to no one at first. In the evenings he gradually reads through Nicky's final letters. These mournful missives from the warfront stir up more complicated memories of their childhood together; it pains Alex to realize how little he knew about his sibling and how much they actually had in common, despite their differing roles within the family.
As a budding writer, Alex feels instantly drawn to the intimidating Rupert Grant, who "corrects" his secretary's prose by way of payment for his work. Parini renders the mentor-apprentice dynamic with great sensitivity. Alex is stung by the harsh strokes of his idol's red pen on his tentative writings, but later realizes that Grant tightened his prose and brought the lines an immediacy they lacked before the acute, if callous, interventions.
Alex's time in Italy is full of experimentation; his character grows and develops through amorous intrigues and tragedy at the villa. I found myself oddly disillusioned when the book ended, not because the conclusion upset me but because I wanted to stay in Alex's world just a little longer.
With pages peppered with enough literary figures and highbrow philosophizing to fill a Greenwich Village coffee house, THE APPRENTICE LOVER is a guilt-free read that still manages to include moments of pure pleasure. The book can be summed up the same way Alex Massolini can be: equal parts literary ambition and unrequited lust. What's not to love?
Reviewed by Andrea E. Hoag on January 20, 2011
The Apprentice Lover