Cover image for Calpurnia
Title:
Calpurnia
ISBN:
9780375413803
Edition:
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Physical Description:
293 p. ; 22 cm.
Summary:
Elizabeth Oliver arrives at Calpurnia to manage the sale but soon finds herself piecing together the mysterious life of Maribel Archibald Davies and her heirs: the prodigal, tennis-playing heir apparent; the fashionable niece, designated as the estate's executor; the loyal neighbor and keeper of the Maribel Davies flame; Davies's heartbroken longtime lover; and the famous portraitist with whom Davies had an affair-become-scandal." "Each of them makes one last visit to Calpurnia, and with each arrival, Elizabeth is drawn further into the family's intrigues and mysteries, and closer to a revelation of its secrets.
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Summary

An elegant debut novel about a once grand Philadelphia mansion called Calpurnia; its owner, a painter and pa- trician matriarch who has recently died under mysterious circumstances; and the woman over-seeing the disposal of the estate, who unravels the secrets and intrigues hidden away in the hundred-year-old house. Elizabeth Oliver arrives at Calpurnia to manage the sale but soon finds herself piecing together the mysterious life of Maribel Archibald Davies and her heirs: the prodigal, tennis-playing heir apparent; the fashionable niece, designated as the estate's execut∨ the loyal neighbor and keeper of the Maribel Davies flame; Davies's heartbroken longtime lover; and the famous portraitist with whom Davies had an affair-become-scandal. Each of them makes one last visit to Calpurnia, and with each arrival, Elizabeth is drawn further into the family's intrigues and mysteries, and closer to a revelation of its secrets. Combining a contemporary sensibility with a rich, timeless gift for storytelling, Anne Scott has given us a classic, uniquely imagined tale of suspense.


Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Scott's debut novel unravels the tangled family secrets surrounding an ancestral Philadelphia manse and its deceased owner, Maribel Archibald Davies, the well-born painter and family matriarch who led a quasi-bohemian life (complete with free love and scandals, but minus the poverty). Elizabeth Oliver, the manager of the estate sale, arrives at the mansion, Calpurnia, to discover a morass of resentments and scheming among Maribel's relatives and ex-hangers-on. The mysterious circumstances of Maribel's death (murder? suicide?) foster an atmosphere of suspense. Maribel's prodigal son, Coby, has astounded his relatives and even himself with a series of spectacular failures, which lead to much suspicion about his role in his mother's death. Nina English, Maribel's beloved niece, harbors her own furtive intentions, which she covers by graciously yet pointedly accusing others. Neighbor Peg, reverent and protective of the deceased, keeps an eye on all from behind the safety of her window curtain. With her own jumbled secrets to hide, Elizabeth feels a growing connection to the enigmatic Maribel as she observes the complex, sometimes absurd efforts of the grande dame's family to act as if they are still living in the gracious era of Maribel's heyday. Each new character adds elements of intrigue and extra twists, but the overwhelming number of faces-close to 30 names are tossed about-also serve to confuse the reader and defuse some of the suspense. The intriguing, old-fashioned plot and memorable details draw the reader in, but this promising yet uneven novel never quite gathers force. (Aug. 19) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Kirkus Review

A fastidious first novel of objets d'art unearths ancestral secrets of a once-great Philadelphia house. The estate sale of Villa Calpurnia (pretentiously named after Caesar's conniving wife) brings together a well-mannered, faintly sinister cast of characters to bicker over the possessions of its deceased owner, Maribel Davies, a painter of aristocratic pedigree but bohemian tastes. Maribel, elderly and suffering from breast cancer, has died under cloudy circumstances, casting a whiff of suspicion around surviving loved ones such as her late-30s layabout substance-abusing son Coby; her niece and executor Nina, whom she raised like a spoiled daughter; her weepy lover Roberto; and nosy, protective neighbor Peg, who over the hedge watches the comings-and-goings at Calpurnia. The estate liquidizer, Elizabeth Oliver, a mid-40s blond divorcÉe struggling to make a respectable living, has been hired by the family to make order of Maribel's Victoriana, which she does with expertly fussy thoroughness; in fact, Elizabeth's reluctant contacts with louche art dealer Ellios, who once made a pass at her, leads to their secret discovery of Maribel's cache of erotic drawings, supposedly the work of the fashionable portrait artist of the day, Lipscomb, once a lover of Maribel's. Each of these characters has his or her own say from one stream-of-consciousness chapter to the next, until Elizabeth's touchingly normal story takes precedence as she tries to maintain her stiff-upper-lip cordiality in the face of Ellios's venal innuendo. Shockingly, Scott's well-spoken Main Liners tend to lapse into similar stock phrases ("tongues will wag," "let's be honest"), and all begin to sound like the same frozen Episcopalian that Elizabeth is--except for the deliciously villainous Ellios, whose courtly machinations are skillfully delineated. With mastery, Scott obsessively chronicles surfaces--she tends to tell versus show--without delving too deeply into the messy inner lives of her tidy characters. Overall, she achieves a fetishistic catalogue of objects, to the detriment of story and suspense. A debut novel of impeccable manners that will appeal nicely to the artistic set. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Booklist Review

Elizabeth Oliver is overseeing the sale of an estate called Calpurnia, a large Philadelphia mansion once owned by Maribel Archibald Davies, painter and self-appointed bohemian. As Elizabeth gathers, organizes, and catalogs the items of the estate, she finds herself drawn into the family's intimate relationships as well as the mysterious circumstances surrounding Maribel's death. A set of risque prints entrenches Elizabeth further into Maribel's life than she ever anticipated or wanted. Everyone Elizabeth meets has a story to tell about Maribel as well as something to hide: Maribel's drug-addicted, tennis-playing son; her beautiful and controlling niece; her grieving longtime lover; the nosy next-door neighbor; and a long-ago lover who once painted her portrait. There isn't much of a plot, but the characters are quirky, strange, and full of contradictions. This is a strong character study and a thorough look at how one life can affect so many lives, for better or worse. --Carolyn Kubisz Copyright 2003 Booklist


Library Journal Review

Upstairs, Downstairs meets Agatha Christie in this charming debut novel. Set in a once elegant Philadelphia mansion called Calpurnia, the action transpires in the months following the death of owner Maribel Archibald Davies. Elizabeth Oliver, a hoity-toity estate manager, has been hired to arrange the sale of the home's dog-eared contents. As she rifles through a century's worth of belongings, she becomes privy to speculation on a number of fronts. Will Calpurnia be sold, or will it be turned into a museum? And what about Maribel? Did she die of cancer, as Elizabeth was initially informed, or did someone help her commit suicide? Oliver's sleuthing takes numerous circuitous but always well-crafted turns and allows Scott to introduce a bevy of recognizable, if quirky, characters. From Maribel's lazy, booze-guzzling son to a leering art trader, the book is stocked with men and women of impeccable taste and scant resources. Droll and perceptive, Scott uses these characters to poke fun at upper-class pretensions, at the same time avoiding mean-spirited cant. A classic whodunit with ample twists, this work is highly recommended for all collections.-Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.