Friday, November 27, 2009

The Confessions of Edward Day

"What actors know about emotions is that they come in pairs, often in direct opposition to each other. That’s what it is to be conflicted. We want what we should not want and we know it. We desire that which is dangerous or forbidden and might cause us to suffer. We fear success, embrace failure. We strive to be independent, longing at the same time to surrender to a burning passion. We hold ourselves aloof from the people we need and seek the approval of those who have no need for us . . . "

That's the voice of Edward Day (page 178), a narrator of great depth and contradiction found in Valerie Martin's latest novel, a fictional memoir entitled The Confessions of Edward Day.

It is the 1970s. Edward Day is an aspiring, up-and-coming actor pursuing his dream in New York City. One weekend, he has a tryst (more like a conquest) with a young woman (Madeleine Delavergne) while visiting friends at the Jersey Shore and later that night, while taking a walk by himself, he leans upon a wooden rail on the boardwalk and tumbles into the Atlantic, getting swept up in a riptide. It is Guy Margate, another actor who is also spending the weekend at the beach, who rescues Edward and saves him from drowning. But the hero will later evolve into a menacing rival for Edward--in both the theater and in love. There resides the quandary of The Confessions of Edward Day, a brilliant novel by the ever-prolific Valerie Martin.

Ms. Martin is primarily a writer of "literary" fiction, but I've always found her books to be very accessible and perfectly balanced in terms of plot and character. I most admire her strong, first person narrators--see also Dr. Jekyll's housemaid in her novel, Mary Reilly, and the slave owner in Property--but Edward Day is by far my favorite. He is such a complex character--smart, self-assured, ambitious and shrewd--and I kept changing my mind about him. Sometimes I despised him and his heartless vanity, yet other times, I felt sorry him. In the end, I found empathy for him and his fate largely because Martin skillfully peels away the layers of his outer shell to reveal a deeply wounded man. (His mother, a woman with gender issues, committed suicide, and it is that tragedy that seeps into all arenas of Edward's life and colors his motivations--in life and in the theater.) The book sets up an ever-shifting power struggle between Edward and Guy as they vie for Madeleine's affections. Add to the love triangle details and insights about life in the theater, the psyche of actors, and a very clever tie-in of the characterizations and storyline of Uncle Vanya (a play by Anton Chekhov) and you won't be able to stop turning pages. The Confessions of Edward Day emerges as a beautifully-written, gripping and suspenseful thriller.