She’s worried about her friendship with Jack, who has married a man Frankie doesn’t like and who arrives in Venice far later than she promised, without her usual easy good will. There’s an underlying sexual tension that is only hinted at. Jack thinks that Frankie is possibly going mad. (If you’re paranoid, are people out to get you?)
But mostly the novel is about Frankie’s relationship with Gilly, who presents herself as a young admirer (she is 26) but keeps her agenda hidden under an arch flippancy and, possibly, a string of lies. She has a habit of calling Frankie “Frances” and airily bossing her around as if the two are contemporaries.
“You’re not the first author to receive a bad review,” Gilly says, forcing Frankie to talk about her disgrace following the negative book review, even as Frankie begs her to stop. “Dostoyevsky. Hemingway. Did you know Virginia Woolf was terribly affected by criticism?” She presses her finger between Frankie’s eyebrows. “Stop thinking so hard, Frances, or that line will become permanent,” she scolds.
Perhaps even more unnerving is Gilly’s impassioned case for experimental writing, with its exciting “interrogation into narrative, into what it means, what purpose it serves and how it can be played with.” The implication is that Frankie’s novels — the ones Gilly has praised so openly — are boringly traditional and hidebound.
Gilly carefully evades questions about herself. Asked again, nearly halfway through the book, what she does for a living, she squares her shoulders and detonates the answer like a bomb: “I’m a writer.”
Oops! Now that she mentions it, she has recently finished her own novel. Would Frankie like to read it?
Gilly never becomes a fully formed character. It is unclear what exactly she is doing in Venice, other than acting as a plot device. But there is a bravery and a poignancy to Frankie that elevates the novel.