Mrs. Gulliver

Books

Valerie Martin’s captivating new novel, Mrs. Gulliver, lies just beyond the horizon. The year is 1954. Verona Island floats a longish ferry ride away from the mainland. Lila Gulliver’s clients enter through a side door behind a hedge, unseen from the street, though prostitution is legal on the island.

Lila, who tells this tale, is a keen observer of surfaces. She crisply describes the clothing and demeanor of everyone we meet. Of the two destitute farm girls who arrive in her drawing room one humid day, Carita stands out. She possesses a rich velvet voice and “an archness as well, distant and amused.” Carita has been blind since birth. Lila thinks Carita might just fulfill a fantasy of some of her clients.

We readers, like Lila, her clients, her colleagues and a college boy named Ian, are soon enchanted by Carita. Lila notes that Ian is “a romantic, self-righteous boy, and I liked the idea of him with Carita, two healthy young bodies driven together by sexual attraction and not much else. . . . She would forget him in a month, but he would remember her for the rest of his life.”

Alas, Lila is not quite right. Ian decides he must save Carita from this den of iniquity. (Lila’s house, by the way, is a place where part-time sex worker Mimi describes the economic theories of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and Carita decides Marx is right.) Ian, scion of the wealthiest family on the island, is involved with a murder that may be a gangland hit. He loses his mind. He and Carita flee to an impoverished fishing village.

Many complications ensue, mostly having to do with money, and the varying temperatures and power dynamics of love. In her afterword, Martin writes that she did not want Carita to end up like Juliet Capulet, a tragic heroine. Instead, in Mrs. Gulliver, Martin offers us an idyll, perhaps even a comedy. Her touch is tender and light. There are shadows and there is sunshine. All’s well that ends well. We hope.

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