A wealthy middle-aged woman that abandoned her acting career because she became too old to play the parts she wanted to play begins an affair with a young gigolo while struggling with the loss of her beauty and the recent death of her husband.
This is quintessential Tennessee Williams; for anyone familiar with his plays, the style and themes in this rare novel of his are instantly recognisable. He has a specific way of creating characters, especially ones that hide their true selves behind an image they created and that they wear like a second skin, and cutting them down to the bone to expose their truth and, often, their shame. In this one, he peels the layers of Mrs. Stone’s self-image back and through this made me feel deeply for her and her struggle to keep hold of her dignity by desperately telling herself that she is not like other rich women having affairs with young men that are only out for money. The way he builds the story towards the slow realisation that she is in fact no different from those other women is basically perfect.
However, everything else is sacrificed for the character study of Mrs. Stone and it is debatable whether this is a good thing or not. Post-WWII Rome provides a distinctive but ultimately meaningless backdrop. The young gigolo is stereotypically vain and self-obsessed and behaves like a petulant child most of the time; he seems to have no other, especially appealing, traits aside from being handsome. The only other important characters are an old countess down on her luck that more or less acts as a pimp for several young men, an old friend of Mrs. Stone’s that tries to make her see the trouble she’s in, and the husband that pops up in Mrs. Stone’s memories, but they are not fleshed out or interesting at all.
All this makes the novel seem like a bit of an experiment or writing exercise. I also thought that it was too descriptive in some parts, in that everything was spelled out in too much detail, although it was thoroughly unnecessary for the reader’s understanding and only succeeded in bringing the flow of the narrative to a halt. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes Williams’ other works.