In occupied France, shortly before the US would enter the war, a young Irish writer named Patrick Byrne falls in with a group of four glamorous Americans; with both their nations neutral states, the five take advantage of the ability to travel around as they please. One of the Americans, Tom Rensselaer, becomes infatuated with Katerina Malipiero, an enigmatic young woman living with her mother Teresa in an old villa.
Tom ingratiates himself with the Malipieros and, after a while, finds himself being called upon by them. They have found the dead body of Alvírez, a recent arrival to the town, in their villa; unable to account for its appearance, Teresa and Katerina secretly enlist Tom’s help in disposing of the body. The truth of what happened does not emerge for another twenty years, when Pat decides to find out how Tom Rensselaerd declined into the wreck of a man that he became.
I’ve got to admit that Jim Williams‘ The Argentinian Virgin didn’t truly grab me. I think that’s because Williams uses a structure that seems to me to work against what he’s trying to achieve. The main point of the novel seems to be show how the course of Tom’s life was set by those events in 1940s France. But the movement of the story is towards the climactic revelation of what happened to Alvírez; whilst Tom’s psychological deterioration takes place to one side of the narrative — we hear about it, but don’t witness it. For me, that breaks the emotional connection between events, and the true impact is lost.
I appereciate Williams’ historical portrait, and his depiction of how love might drive people to commit desperate acts. But I didn’t connect with the heart of the novel in the way I’d hoped; so The Argentinian Virgin ends up being no more than an average read in my view.