Mrs. Gulliver

Written by Valerie Martin
Review by Kristen McDermott

Lila Gulliver is the madam of a sedate, respectable brothel on an unnamed tropical tourist island. This is a historical novel only in the sense that its setting is sometime in the mid-20th century; although the location of the fictional island of Verona is never pinpointed, it seems to be in the Caribbean – possibly the Florida Keys – because its population is mostly white and Latine, and its economic and cultural connections seem to be to the American mainland.

None of that is really important, however, as our first-person narrator invites us into the events that disrupt her comfortable, uneventful life. Lila takes pride in the exclusivity and quality of the entertainment she presides over. Pragmatic, compassionate, and frank, her reliability as a narrator is tinged by her stubborn belief that she offers her workers a path to success unavailable to most women.

The narrative begins when an enthusiastic new sex worker, Carità, arrives. Despite her blindness, Carità is resourceful and ambitious, and soon becomes the object of desire for the idealistic son of a wealthy local attorney. Lila’s attempts to protect the young couple bring her a new lover – the boy’s father – and a raft of complications that reveal the transactional nature of even the most affectionate of relationships.

The pace of the novel is slow, with exhaustively detailed descriptions of food, clothing, and weather, all of which are deliberately unexotic. Likewise, the descriptions of Lila’s increasingly passionate affair are surprisingly unerotic, considering her profession. But Martin peppers her twisty, noirish plot with sly references to Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, and Hemingway, revealing that this is a literary, not a crime novel, a careful excavation of one woman’s slow realization that exploitation taints almost all relationships in the modern world, and what it might take to change that.