As a novelist, the gifted Valerie Martin rarely repeats herself. From Victorian London (Mary Reilly) to antebellum New Orleans (Property), Martin has an uncanny ability to hit the mark in whatever era she chooses to explore. Her new novel, The Confessions of Edward Day, is set in 1970s New York and focuses on the tightly knit theater community where the day jobs are mindless, the competition fierce and on-stage nudity is the latest thing.
Confessions follows aspiring actor Edward Day and his colleagues as they make their way through cheap apartments, summer stock and the ever-elusive search for an Equity card. But after Day joins friends for a weekend at the Jersey shore, his life and career take a radical turn. He meets and becomes involved with Madeleine, a beautiful but unstable actress. He also encounters the mysterious Guy Margate, to whom he has almost an instant aversion. Guy bears a marked physical resemblance to Edward, but it is after he saves Edward from drowning that their lives become intertwined. The two struggle through a decade of prickly encounters, each man seething with jealousy and commonplace dislike.
Edward’s career takes off after a well-reviewed production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, but he is never quite able to shake Guy—who grows more and more demanding as the years pass. After Guy and Madeleine marry, the tale becomes as suspenseful as a thriller. The story culminates in Madeleine and Edward getting cast as the lovers in a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya where their respective roles painfully reflect the reality of their personal situations.
The ever-shifting relationship between emotion and action is an actor’s stock in trade, but how we muddle though life with our feelings, sensations and memories to guide us is a keen part of the human experience. In writing a novel about theater, Martin has also written a novel about life and the issues raised by Edward and Guy’s dilemma—what do we owe one another, when is it necessary to put another person’s needs before our own, can a debt ever be repaid?—are universal.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.