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The Irish Signorina by Julia O'Faolain (Adler & Adler: $15.95; 186 pp.)

June 08, 1986|William Murray | Murray's latest novel is "The Hard Knocker's Luck." He writes frequently from Italy for The New Yorker. and

Julia O'Faolain is a born writer, who has undoubtedly had to bear from the beginning the heavy burden of a celebrated literary figure, Sean O'Faolain, for a father. This may account for a certain bloodlessness in her prose, which often seems a bit too prim, too cautious. She is constantly shutting doors and pulling down blinds just when we'd most like her to open them and admit the light.

By this criticism, I don't mean to imply that I fault her in the least for not writing graphically sexual scenes (she doesn't), but simply that she always seems to be holding something back from the reader, as if afraid of appearing vulgar or merely pedestrian. I keep wanting her to take the sort of risks most great writers will, but then I realize I am being unfair. There is so much to recommend in her work that it seems churlish to ask for something else she may be unable, not merely unwilling, to supply.

In "The Irish Signorina," O'Faolain writes from the point of view of a young, middle-class Irish woman suddenly thrust into an intensely Italian milieu. She is following in the footsteps of her mother, who many years before had also been a guest at the Tuscan villa of the old Marchesa Niccolosa Caval-canti, near Florence. She inherits not only her mother's place at the dying Marchesa's side, but also a complicated past to which the Marchesa herself holds the secret. The unraveling of this mystery, with its nuances of entangled alliances, carnal yearnings and potential disaster, is the thread on which the author balances her tale. In some ways, it reads like a very good mystery, and at no time is it boring or obvious.

In addition to her understanding of the Italian scene and the psychology of her complicated characters, O'Faolain's prose is precise and often beautiful: "It had rained during the night. A skin of wrinkled damp clung to windowpanes, and spillages from gutters were apt to drench people crossing the courtyards. After breakfast, the sun came out and was refracted by prisms of water hanging from torn hibiscus blossoms."

This passage, selected pretty much at random, is typical of her writing, and it seems unkind, in this era of gross self-indulgence and inflated verbiage, to complain. Still, it is precisely this ability to write so well that tends to make the reader want more from her. Her heroine never seems to let go, to lose control, to be swept up in the complicated passions of her Italian surroundings. Even when she is making love on the floor of the villa to a brash young man whom she both admires and despises, she always seems to be standing outside of herself, to be, in effect, watching herself in action. The technique tends to remove the reader as well from total involvement, but then perhaps the character the author has chosen as her sole protagonist may be to blame. Some tears, a little sweat, but not much blood in her.

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