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The once grand Philadelphia mansion called Calpurnia is the setting
for Anne Scott's first novel, CALPURNIA. She writes in the present
tense and in the viewpoint of the character who predominates each
chapter. The lead character is Elisabeth Oliver, a professional
hired to conduct an estate sale for the family of deceased artist
Maribel Davies. From the onset, Elisabeth is challenged by the
assorted family members and by the mansion itself.

There are parallels between Elisabeth's life and that of the
deceased artist. Divorce, adultery, struggles for economic
stability, parenthood, and love for art are ties that bind her to
Maribel's life. However, Elisabeth's stability contrasts to
Maribel's Bohemian lifestyle. In the course of collecting and
pricing the myriad of items in the house, Elisabeth discovers
ghosts from the artist's past life that continue to haunt the

The heirs each have their own agenda for discovery. Nina, niece and
executor, has the ability to wield the most power from the sale,
but she has much to lose as well from dark discovery. Cody,
Maribel's wayward son, stands to give up his heritage and
birthright if Calpurnia is sold and becomes a museum. He uses
deception to gain entrance to his childhood home after Nina changes
door locks. His unlawful entrance and theft sets off a reaction
that halts the sale. It is taken for granted that Cody is the
intruder. The reader is cheated by the low-key reaction from the
other heirs.

Neighbor Peg had the closest relationship to Maribel, but she is
seen as a nosey obstacle. She is the sole champion to the
dispossessed son, linked to him by his friendship to her own dead
son. It is unclear what caused Mikey's death, but it's a nagging
question. Similar doubts remain breaths of wind that waft into and
out of the story. Did Maribel die from natural causes or from a
drug overdose? She had been racked with pain from cancer before her

Her art, finished and unfinished, is the predominant subject in
CALPURNIA. Though touted as having possibilities for greatness, she
spurns the professional limelight while alive. Her affair with
renowned portrait artist Lipscomb is the source of conjecture and
investigation after her death. The discovery of erotic art and the
subsequent question of its origin becomes Elisabeth's

CALPURNIA is more character-driven than plot-directed. There is
little dialogue, much detail and more introspection from the
characters. CALPURNIA makes a drafty estate that has outlived its
glory days the object of emotion in Scott's story. Before its
conclusion, one cares more about the future of the mansion than
about the desires of its characters. Elisabeth pursues her
instincts and eases family dilemmas. No real mystery is solved and
numerous ends remain untied.

Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 21, 2011

by Anne Scott

  • Publication Date: August 12, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0375413804
  • ISBN-13: 9780375413803