Synopses & Reviews
Fresh from finishing university in England, Adam Woods arrives in Venice to begin a new chapter in his life. He soon secures employment as the personal assistant of Gordon Crace a famous expatriate novelist who makes his home in a dank and crumbling palazzo, surrounded by fabulous works of art, piles of unanswered correspondence and the memories of his former literary glory.
Before long Adam becomes indispensable to the feeble Crace, and he finds himself at once drawn to and repelled by his elderly employer's brilliant mind and eccentric habits. As Adam comes to learn more about the scandal that brought Crace to Venice years ago, he realizes he has stumbled upon the raw material that could launch his own literary career and makes a bold decision: He will secretly write the famous author's biography. But outsmarting Crace is easier said than done, and the two soon find themselves locked in a bitter contest over the right to determine how the story of Crace's life will end. Against the haunting backdrop of the serene city, the two men engage in a ruthless game of cat and mouse that builds to a breathtaking and unexpected conclusion.
"Patricia Highsmith, the subject of British journalist Wilson's acclaimed biography Beautiful Shadow, would be delighted by this standout debut novel, which heralds a major new talent in the psychological thriller genre. After a tutoring job in Venice falls through, aspiring novelist Adam Woods appears to luck into the perfect position there as personal assistant to the reclusive Gordon Crace, an acclaimed writer whose life is shrouded in mystery and who's published only one novel. Crace, who's locked himself away from the glories of his chosen city, insists Woods abide by a set of strict rules, including not mentioning Crace's literary success. In clearing out the author's mess of a study, Woods finds two letters that hint at a dark secret in Crace's past, and begins to discreetly probe his employer's past, with calamitous results. Wilson brilliantly and subtly introduces doubt in the reader as to Woods's reliability and character before delivering some potent final plot twists. Fans of classic Hitchcock will be richly rewarded." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Wilson, a first novelist, clearly enjoys a good wink....He fashions his twisted tale with assurance and artistry, and although we may not particularly like any of his characters, we're still dying to know what happens to them." Booklist
"In genre fiction, the gold standard isn't always measured by originality and there are times when a familiar plot can comfort and delight....[A] romantic suspense story that's no less enthralling for being a bit quaint." Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
"Wilson overthinks the hectic denouement, but getting there offers the same skin-crawling pleasure that Highsmith knew how to deliver so well. (Grade: B+)" Entertainment Weekly
"A mouldering Venetian palazzo, a decaying old man and an unscrupulous young writer. Corruption, seduction and a notable lack of guilt. A story as rank and rich as the city it is set in." Sarah Dunant, author of The Birth of Venus
Relocating to Venice upon completing his university education, Adam Woods becomes the personal assistant to a famous elderly expatriate novelist, whose biography Adam secretly pens before the eccentric writer discovers him and launches a psychological contest to determine how the biography will end. A first novel. 50,000 first printing.
About the Author
Andrew Wilson is the author of Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best biography. He has written for most of Britain's national newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail. He lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The epigraph to the book reads, "This is not the book I wanted to write. This is not how it was supposed to be at all." What does this mean? Who is the speaker?
2. Is Adam Woods a reliable narrator? Do you trust him as the storyteller? Why or why not? What are examples of where he builds trust or breaks it? How would the story be different if it was written from the point of view of Gordon Crace or even an outsider?
3. The novel begins, "Wherever I went I saw a question mark at the heart of the city." This form of a question mark appears several other times throughout the book. What does this question mark represent? Does it represent something different for Adam than it does for the reader?
4. What are Adam's first impressions of Gordon Crace? Is Crace what he expected? Is he what you expected? Gordon Crace's house is poorly kept and covered in grime and dust. What does this reveal about him? What about his elaborate art collection? How does Crace's dingy residence clash with Adam's obsessive neat streak?
5. Discuss Winterborne Abbey and its relationship to Crace. Why does he have such a difficult time speaking about it?
6. Describe and discuss Adam's interpretation of Crace's frame of mind throughout the novel. Does his mental state change? If so, what are the indicators? When and how does it happen?
7. How does your view of Adam change throughout the novel? Out of the many things that he does, what is his worst offense? What are his motives? Describe how Adam views and understands the concepts of love and power. How are they related in his mind?
8. Discuss Adam and Eliza's relationship. Does Adam's obsessive nature ruin it? What role, if any, does Eliza play in Adam's quest to be Crace's biographer?
9. What are the repercussions of Adam Woods looking like Christopher Davidson? How are they alike and how are they different?
10. One of the major themes of the novel is the idea of someone's story and how it is told. What are the differences between a diary, an autobiography, and a biography? Identify how each appears in this novel and how the author uses those differences in the narrative.
11. Adam Woods and Gordon Crace are both manipulative and violent sex offenders. Who is a more sympathetic character? Do you think that either of them have inherently good motives that are in conflict with their poor decisions and actions?
12. Throughout the novel Adam Woods lies many times. When and why does he do so? Is this tactic effective? In real life, is lying ever an acceptable tactic? If so, when?
13. Discuss the concepts of guilt and remorse in the novel. Do either of the main characters feel them?
14. Were you surprised by the ending? Who do you think is more cunning, Adam Woods or Gordon Crace? Do you feel success for Crace, and loss for Adam? Or the other way around? Who wins in the end?
Enhance Your Reading Group
1. Venice is a beautiful city stretched across a number of small islands in the marshy Venetian Lagoon along the Adriatic Sea in northeast Italy. Learn more about the city, or even plan a trip by visiting www.turismovenezia.it/eng/dynalay.asp?PAGINA=407.
2. To see photos of Venice as described in the novel, check out some of these books from your local library: Living in Venice, by Frédéric Vitoux; Francesco's Venice: The Dramatic History of the World's Most Beautiful City, by Francesco da Mosto; or Venice: City of Art, by Matteo Varia.
3. Cook an Italian meal for your book group. Some excellent Italian cookbooks from SimonandSchuster include: The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, and Williams-Sonoma Collection: Italian, by Pamela Sheldon Johns.