Palace of the Drowned

Written by Christine Mangan
Review by Larry Zuckerman

It’s 1966, and more than a decade has passed since Frances (Frankie) Croy’s debut novel captured the London literary world; failure has dogged her since. After a disastrous meltdown at a publicity party, she’s fled to Venice to hide. But shortly after her arrival, a woman much younger than Frankie accosts her, says they’ve met before, and declares herself an admirer of Frankie’s work, especially that debut novel. But Frankie’s sure she’s never met “the girl,” as she thinks of Gilly Larson, and wonders what her game is.

Frankie’s suspicious of everybody, but this novel operates according to the adage that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean nobody’s out to get you. So the game’s afoot, and a clever, well-crafted game it is, one that never has to strain for plot points, because they come from within. Frankie must wonder whether she’s living a cat-and-mouse relationship with Gilly—who seems to alternate between trying to befriend her or put her down—or reading too much into what goes on.

I like how Mangan taps into the pervasive fear belonging to people insecure in their accomplishments, especially when a seemingly more confident youngster comes along. Since this is a literary thriller, the first-rate prose you’d expect creates character and mood.

However, none of these brittle, difficult, even obnoxious people appeal to me. That works to an extent, I guess, because I can readily believe just about any of them capable of just about anything. But after a while, I cease to care, and only in the rare moments when Frankie’s vulnerabilities feel human, rather than merely repellent, can I approach her.

Mangan’s a gifted author, and her psychological portrayals ring true. Yet this book feels too cold for me to embrace.