The Subtleties of Seduction
A Novella by David Orsini
Reviewed by Bernhard H. Kuhn
Set in the rarefied atmosphere of 1920’s Newport high-society, David Orsini’s exquisite novella, The Subtleties of Seduction, takes the reader to a place where nothing is quite as it seems. Behind the well-mannered and richly adorned façade of a world that exudes self-confidence and privilege lie hidden passions and motives that threaten the basic assumptions of all players in the drama that unfolds. Rich in psychological detail, penetrating social analysis, and deep existential power, Orsini’s work is not to be missed.
The most captivating aspect of The Subtleties of Seduction is the quality of its lyrical prose. At his best, Orsini reminds one of Virginia Woolf and Henry James with their ability to develop a language that can explore the deepest passageways of a character’s consciousness. Outwardly, the story revolves around a foolhardy sailboat race. The impulsive, self-fashioned Byronic hero, Ryan Turner, challenges the more earnest, sensible Steven Bradford and his fiancée Linda Maguire to a contest. When Ryan presents Linda’s sister, Tracy, as his racing companion, the deeper motives behind this seemingly impulsive challenge begin to emerge. Despite the alluring plot, the focus of Orsini’s narrative is not on this outward “adventure” – a key motif in the story – but on the inward “adventure” of the characters as they struggle against historical, social, and moral imperatives.
In one respect The Subtleties of Seduction is a tale about the past. The reticent and restrained characters, acutely aware of their social duties, belong to a world at a remove from our extroverted, tell-all, morally permissive present. Orsini’s work is more than a work of historical fiction, however. The work speaks to a feeling of uncertainty, alienation, and even rebellion that is very much of the moment. In its joining of past and present sensibilities, The Subtleties of Seduction stakes it claim as a work of enduring fiction.
Bernhard H. Kuhn is an Associate Professor of Enlightenment and Romantic Literature at Union College. He earned a Bachelor’s degree at Brown University and a Ph.D. from Princeton. He is the author of Autobiography and Natural Science: Rousseau, Goethe, Thoreau. He has also written several articles about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and culture.
The Subtleties of Seduction
A Novella by David Orsini
Reviewed by Lois A. Cuddy
From the splendid title, to the rich and suggestive first paragraph that grabs the reader and never lets go, to the surprise ending (though the conclusion should not have been a total shock with the “subtle” clues of Linda’s observations—noted after the fact), this novella was captivating. I was in the world of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf and felt completely at home. The setting and language, the characters and conflicts are extraordinary. The Subtleties of Seduction is quite simply a gem.
The setting is early twentieth-century Newport, among the grand “cottages” of the wealthy where landscape is breathtaking for its architectural design and its natural wildness. The setting is beautifully rendered to reflect the outer reserve and the inner turmoil of the characters and their lives. The language echoes Henry James, but the rhetoric is made more accessible and lucid by the relative simplicity of our contemporary standards in fiction. If you know Orsini’s first book of fiction, Bitterness/Seven Stories, you again hear the Orsini voice that is historicized and internalized by James’s tantalizing style, by Edith Wharton’s naturalism and social ambiguities, and by Virginia Woolf’s existential moments of choice and consequence.
Orsini has mastered the art of choosing the precise word for every moment, for the narrator’s perceptions, and for Linda’s emotional tensions between reality and illusion. Not only are the day and its adventures “disguised or dislocated,” according to the narrator, but also the novel is made up of contrasts that create the conflicts in nature, people, human behavior, and the social and psychological expectations of both character and reader. In this carefully crafted plot, what might seem like a trivial situation by today’s moral standards is complicated by multiple levels of psychological and naturalistic issues as well as by questions of life and death, trust, honesty, and judgment.
The plot and characters are perfectly integrated as Linda and Steven, her prudent and always responsible and attentive fiancé, are balanced against Tracy, Linda’s young sister, and Ryan, the adventurous, sensual poet, who challenges the couple to a boat race under dangerous conditions. With a shadowed past and questionable motivation in the present, Ryan has more than a touch of irresponsibility beneath a veneer of class and handsome self-assurance. Linda and Steven are propelled forward— against their better judgment—and seem to lose their free will to the enthusiasm of Ryan who seems to live only for the excitement of adventure and pleasure in the present. That is how it seems in the landscape Orsini has created. But then Orsini turns our assumptions upside down and leaves us—like Linda and the others around her— shocked by manipulations and revelations that were unexpected and undesired.
The world at the beginning of the novella is not the same world at the conclusion. And except for Ryan, the characters are not the same people whom we thought we knew when this misadventure began. While the unpeeling of the past and of the psychological layers of personality are helpful in understanding why the characters act as they do, what they do and feel is a constant surprise. There is an admirable resolution in the plot, but no real ending, at least for me. Instead, we are left wishing there were more.
Lois A. Cuddy received her Ph.D. from Brown University. She is Professor Emerita of English, Women's Studies, and Comparative Literature Studies at the University of Rhode Island. Her books include T. S. Eliot and the Poetics of Evolution and Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880 to 1940. Her articles on authors as diverse as Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, T. S. Eliot, Homer, Samuel Beckett, Dante, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others have appeared in journals in the United States, Canada, and Europe.