Synopses & Reviews
Acclaimed author Valerie Martin returns with a dark comedy about love, sex, an actor's ambition, and the perils of playing a role too well.
In this fictional memoir, Valerie Martin brilliantly re-creates the seamy theater world of 1970s New York, when rents were cheap, love was free, and nudity on stage was the latest craze. Edward Day, a talented and ambitious young actor finds his life forever altered during a weekend party on the Jersey Shore, where he seduces the delicious Madeleine Delavergne and is saved from drowning by the mysterious Guy Margate, a man who bears an eerie physical resemblance to Edward. Forever after, Edward is torn between his desire for Madeleine and his indebtedness to Guy, his rival in love and in art, on stage and off.
"The book grapples with an interesting philosophical dilemma. Already the issue of owing any stranger your life is a complex one. How deep is that debt? Where do you draw the line? But Martin complicates the matter further by putting her protagonist into a life-debt with his own doppelganger. In the Gothic tradition, the hero would murder his double, lest unchecked it usurp his role in society. But how can you think of killing the man to whom you owe your life — even if he pesters you, hits you up for cash, and tries to steal your girl?" Dan Petrelli, Rain Taxi (Read the entire )
An acclaimed author returns with a dark comedy about love, sex, an actor's ambition, and the perils of playing a role too well. In this fictional memoir, Martin brilliantly re-creates the seamy theater world of 1970s New York, when rents are cheap, love is free, and nudity on stage is the latest craze.
About the Author
VALERIE MARTIN is the author of eight novels, including Trespass, Italian Fever, The Great Divorce, Mary Reilly, and the 2003 Orange Prize-winning Property, and three collections of short fiction.
Reading Group Guide
1. Part I concludes with Edward wishing he could avenge his mother's death by making Helen pay for what she had done. Is this a form of misplaced anger? How does the theme of retribution play out throughout the novel?
2. Edward describes his rescue from the ocean in almost supernatural terms, and his resemblance to Guy is eerie, too. Throughout the novel, the two men compete for the same things, and in the end, one is left with nothing while the winner takes all. In a literal sense, the two are adversaries. How might their relationship be interpreted in a more figurative way? Is it possible that they are two halves of the same person? What does the novel say about how well we know ourselves?
3. About his initial decision to study acting, Edward says, “Inside a character I knew exactly who I was, the environment was controlled, and no one was going to do anything unexpected. It seemed a way of playing it safe. Of course, real acting is the farthest thing from safe a person can get.” Discuss this dichotomy. Why would Edward crave certainty? What about acting makes it unsafe?
4. At Marlene's cottage, Edward remarks to the reader, “Actors are a superstitious tribe.” Why do you think this might be? Do you think that luck plays a role in the success of an actor more than it does for those in other professions? Or is talent all it takes? How might any actor's constant need for approval affect them psychologically?
5. It's Edward's understanding that if Guy had not jumped into the ocean to save him, he would have drowned, and for that, “I owed him my life and my obligation was a bond that must endure between us forever.” Do you think this is a normal response? Would you feel the same? Or do you think Edward is more prone to feeling indebted and, if so, why?
6. Guy is consistently presented as being cold and humorless, but these are only Edward's observations. Do you think Edward's perception is correct? How do the other characters see Guy? Is it possible that Edward is blinded by his own myopia? Why would he be?
7. Edward considers himself a Method actor who acts from the inside out-in other words, his internal emotions inform his voice and behavior on stage. Guy, on the other hand, acts from the outside in-letting his body invoke an emotional response. While Edward and Guy are similar in many respects, why do you think the author chose to endow them with these different techniques?
8. When Edward acts with Marlene, he feels emotion on stage for the first time. Do you consider his emotion authentic? How much of what we witness on stage or in film would you consider “real”? Or is all acting pretending? Has this book changed your opinion about truth in art?
9. Edward often recounts events from his life as if they were scenes, describing them in theatrical terms. What do you think this says about him?
10. How did you feel when Teddy spilled the news that Madeleine had married Guy? Were you surprised? Were you sympathetic to Edward? Did your attitude toward either character change at this point?
11. How is Teddy's revelation about his sexual orientation relevant to the themes of the novel?
12. Did Madeleine's proclamation about her sex life with Guy change your attitude toward him? Do you think she was telling the truth?
13. A few events at the end of the novel alter Edward's understanding of Guy and Madeleine's relationship, and he finds himself shocked by even the mundane-or perhaps obvious-fact that they had been “playing house” together. Why do you think this comes as a surprise to Edward? Should it?
14. Chekhov's gun is a literary technique whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later on. Chekhov himself explained, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” What examples of this device can you find in The Confessions of Edward Day? How does the author create a sense of foreboding and tension?
15. Near the end of the novel, Edward considers the fact that Guy might have intended to take his place on stage in Uncle Vanya. Is this a plausible scenario? What do you make of Guy's motives throughout the novel? Why is he so unrelenting? How would the novel differ if it were written from his point of view? Why do you think the novel is limited to Edward's perspective?
"Valerie Martin's sort-of thriller, The Confessions of Edward Day
, is one of the best novels I've ever read about the actor's psyche.... Martin builds an ominous tension almost Hitchcockian in its trenchant and perverse knowledge about the human animal.... [She] is like a great character actor who never calls attention to the flesh and blood behind the performance, whose art seems to require or at least contain a special kind of humility or perhaps even a desire to sidestep the limelight.... Edward Day
possesses a gimlet eye for both the contributions and the eternal follies of his profession.... It's almost enough to make you believe that an actor should run the world. Wait, scratch that — make it a novelist."
—The New York Times Book Review
"The intimacy of Edward's narrative voice is one of the novel's most startling achievements. We gradually cease to like our main character, yet we stagger after him, captivated. Martin's symbolic substructure — layers of repetition and mirroring — is so skillfully embedded in her story that we feel its effects without realizing it, like an understated but persuasive musical score.... Actors are selected for survival, which explains why ordinary people both admire and revile them.... Martin's grasp of the theater world of the period—a pre-AIDS bohemia of cheap rent and earnest artistic exploration — is as sure as her re-creation of Victorian England in Mary Reilly. One never gets the sense that this is a 'historical novel,' packed with colorful but extraneous detail. In fact, her details are masterful in their spareness. Edward's voice is the anchor, and even if he proves to be, at heart, a little less than 'real,' we are more than willing to hear him out."
—Los Angeles Times
"As an actor who moved to New York in 1970, I inhabited the theater world that Valerie Martin describes in her novel The Confessions of Edward Day. Living on 10th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place, I drank at Phebe's and the Cedar Tavern, and I worked at the Public Theater when Joe Papp was its emperor — all places where we find Ms. Martin's protagonist, an actor named Edward Day. But conjuring a milieu requires more than just re-creating the physical environment. Ms. Martin knows this – she has previously shown a gift for inhabiting her subject in novels such as Mary Reilly, which captured the Victorian London of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Salvation, about the life of St. Francis of Assisi.... Ms. Martin also gets one thing triumphantly right. At the end of the story, a youngish actor approaches Ed and recalls a role that the older actor played long ago. The part had seemed inconsequential to Ed at the time, and yet the young man says: 'You changed my life.' Ms. Martin has discovered the curse of the profession: Actors can change people's lives, but we have no idea how we do it."
—Edward Herrmann, The Wall Street Journal
"Menace underlies almost every moment of Valerie Martin's latest marvel, The Confessions of Edward Day. Set in the '70s — 'before the soybean had been tamed' — this is a novel full of hungry young pre-Equity actors studying under such Manhattanbased greats as Stella Adler and Sandy Meisner.... Martin's plot is but part of what makes her such a rewarding author. Her gift for suspense is surpassed only by her gifts for dialogue, for description, for variety, for veracity. Not to mention her edge, her wit, her ability to make us smile at the most dire of these actors' times.... Spare with her adjectives, Martin uses only the most apt — and this gives the book's sex scenes a rare transcendence after which, Day says, 'We were quiet then while the world fell back into place'.... Once again, she has drawn us so willingly into her tangled — but always welcoming — web."
—The Buffalo News
"Martin captures the duplicity of the actor perfectly: Sometimes he doesn't know if he's feeling something or if he's acting.... [She] does a terrific job of capturing what it is to go to auditions, work day and night to keep a roof over your head, share camaraderie and rivalry with peers, all to get that longed-for callback for a really great part."
—The Seattle Times
"A lively blend of heartbreak and truth-telling, self-deception and hope."
—New Orleans Times-Picayune
"[Martin] maintains a thriller-like pace and keeps her plot twists dark."
—Time Out New York
"Jealousy. Envy. Resentment. And don't forget ego, which is what Valerie Martin's eighth novel is mostly about."
—The Salt Lake Tribune
"[A] smartly-tailored conception.... Martin draws attention to the divide between literary realism and performance; her arena is psychological and her precise metaphors are what the reader cherishes.... Martin's book makes one wonder how anyone can succeed at the tightrope walk of a Brando or Streep, and how anyone could not be tempted."
"Actors are among the most fascinating and fiery people alive. The Confessions of Edward Day reveals the world of theater actors in New York in the 1970s — mysterious and charming young people in a great era. Valerie Martin never repeats herself. After a memorable novel about Victorian London (Mary Reilly) and the best book there is about slavery (Property), she has now recreated in stunning detail a recent decade that feels as glamorous and remote as the 1890s or the 1920s."
"Edward Day's confession reminded me of how exciting New York theater really was in the 70s. Valerie Martin has truly captured the reality of being an actor and Edward's tale is as suspenseful as a thriller."
"Valerie Martin has given us an entertaining and insightful look at the angst, joy and heartbreak that is the work of the actor. Bravo."