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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro

Paul Theroux

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To purchase The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro

Title: The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Stories
Written: 2003
Length: 296 pages
Availability: The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro - US
The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro - UK
The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro - Canada
The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro - India
Retour au Palazzo d'Oro - France
Der Fremde im Palazzo d'Oro - Deutschland
  • and Other Stories
  • British and Australian reviews of this collection note only three stories in the section that is entitled A Judas Memoir in the US edition; the piece called "Holy Week" is apparently not included in the UK and Australian editions of the book.

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Our Assessment:

B : solid but unexceptional

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 3/8/2003 .
The Guardian . 14/6/2003 Blake Morrison
The Independent . 27/6/2003 Salley Vickers
The LA Times . 8/2/2004 Michael Harris
The NY Times D 10/2/2004 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/1/2004 Kathryn Harrison
The New Yorker . 19/1/2004 .
People A- 9/2/2004 Rebecca Donner
San Francisco Chronicle . 18/1/2004 Heller McAlpin
The Spectator . 14/6/2003 Olivia Glazebrook
The Telegraph . 29/5/2003 Sam Leith
The Telegraph . 2/6/2003 Mark Sanderson
The Times . 7/6/2003 Jane Shilling
The Washington Post . 8/2/2004 Stephen Abell

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus; few entirely satisfied

  From the Reviews:
  • "At times, especially in the title story, there is a repetitious lubricity that suggests a dirty old man indulging in nasty fantasies; yet even when Theroux seems to be sliding towards misogyny, the vivid clarity of his style and power of his storytelling still survive." - The Age

  • "Perhaps Theroux isn't to blame, but the whole culture of writing about sex. Gay writers can do sex, women too, but when heterosexual men attempt it, in particular heterosexual men past the age of 50, the results aren't arousing or provocative any more, but tired and grungy." - Blake Morrison, The Guardian

  • "Theroux is a distinctive and daring writer but, like the sex, I found the novella's structure over-contrived. (...) As in the companion pieces, he is at his best shadowing the fugitive feelings which are the out-riders of desire. But I was left feeling a little like Gil, who, lamenting the lack of conversation with his mistress, reflects: "All we shared was sex. I liked that but I wanted more."" - Salley Vickers, The Independent

  • "Although the other stories in this volume eschew the crudely voyeuristic tone of "Palazzo," they, too, are seriously flawed, redeemed only by Mr. Theroux's unerring sense of place and his ability to conjure worlds distant in geography or time. (...) (T)his volume as a whole has a hasty, self-conscious air to it, a tendency to turn subsidiary characters -- particularly the women -- into predictable and unsympathetic stereotypes, and a penchant for substituting cheap, sensationalistic set pieces for purposeful, revelatory storytelling. In sum it's a book that showcases the author's weaknesses and liking for short cuts, instead of his considerable gifts as a writer." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The tone of the stories in The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro is clinical at fatalistic., making it difficult for the reader to experience much engagement with the characters. Rather, each narrative is sustained by the suspense inherent in sexual pursuit (perhaps especially when we know it will end miserably) and, oddly, by Theroux's use of stereotype to sketch the more minor players." - Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The corruption of the flesh -- by age and by lust -- is the prevailing obsession of Theroux's story collection." - The New Yorker

  • "In each story Theroux's prose is shot through with gentle melancholy, evoking the complexities of matters of the heart with subtlety and grace." - Rebecca Donner, People

  • "The problem is, Theroux is brilliant at writing self-aware, clever, arrogant and rather detached men like Gil, but his women never come alive in the same way. I'd even say there's a trace of misogyny in, at least, many of his narrators." - Sam Leith, The Telegraph

  • "The title story is both the longest and weakest. (...) The final tale, Disheveled Nymphs, returns to the scene of Theroux's latest novel, Hotel Honolulu. Once again money is shown to be no defence against loneliness. A multi-millionaire, thwarted in his lust for the two women who clean his "fabulous house", is reduced to the level of "an unsatisfied voyeur". All too often in this collection the reader knows exactly how he feels." - Mark Sanderson, The Telegraph

  • "(A)n entertaining, erotic collection of short fiction (.....) The conceit of an only story is about as preposterous as a blocked Theroux. In truth, Theroux is so full of stories -- erotic, exotic, tragic, buoyant -- that he has to fabricate authors to accommodate the overflow. (...) Readers can be grateful that Theroux has once again channeled some of his secrets, sexual energy and sensibility -- complete with his signature "rosy- hued lechery" -- into yet another stimulating volume in his impressive canon." - Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "It is hard to know what to make of these stories, with their strange, mixed overtones of titillation and exhaustion. Perhaps their most conspicuous quality is their professionalism. As a storyteller, Theroux vibrates with the resonance of a Kipling or a Somerset Maugham. He shares with them an almost vulgarly journalistic sense of the colourful anecdote, the enticing detail, the barb of human interest deployed to catch a reader's attention. And, like them, he is an expert technician" - Jane Shilling, The Times

  • "Most notable, in a collection that can be redeemingly considered as a series of descriptive moments rather than of convincing narratives, is "A Judas Memoir," four impressionistic snapshots of a child's life in Medford, Mass. (the author's hometown), in which Theroux relishes the opportunity to focus on recalled sights, smells and sensations. The narrative becomes happily immersed in circumstantial detail" - Stephen Abell, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title piece in this collection, The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro, is novella-length, over a hundred pages. It is narrated by Gilford Mariner, a painter who, now that he is sixty years old, feels he can tell his one and only story. He recounts the events from a summer some four decades earlier, when he was in Taormina -- where D.H.Lawrence wrote his poem, Snake -- , and became involved with the Gräfin.
       Accompanied by her doctor cum factotum, the Gräfin is a haughty, rich, vain woman:

     The Gräfin was a countess by an accident of fate. She was someone's daughter, someone's lover, someone's ex-wife, just a lucky egg. She had done nothing in her life except be decorative. Her life was devoted to her appearance -- being beautiful, nothing else.
       The doctor arranges for Gil to become involved with the Gräfin. She's at least ten or fifteen years older than him (so his initial guess), and he's not that attracted to her, but then he does allow himself to get roped into this game and becomes her kept toy, treated largely (and at best) as a servant in public, but taking a dominant sexual role behind closed doors.
       It's not an entirely satisfactory arrangement -- "All we shared was sex. I liked that but I wanted more" Gil complains, but escape also isn't simple. There's also more to the Gräfin than Gil initially suspects. "She is not the woman you think she is", the doctor eventually tells Gil.
       It's an odd tale of inter-generational lust and sex. There are a few decent twists, and it's told well enough. Some of the sexual encounters are awkwardly presented -- "I could not tell where her soft skin ended and her silk began, and the complexity of her vaginal lips was like another silken garment she had put on for me to stroke" -- but it's a decent enough tale. Still, it tries to be a bit much, and does so neither as a tight story (it's much too long) or as a full-fledged novel (it's much too thin).
       The second part of the book collects four episodes as A Judas Memoir, another hundered-plus page collection, of a youth in Medford, Massachusetts (prime Theroux territory) recounting episodes from his life. Each is an early challenge to innocence, a glimpse of sex and all that it means, without any clear answers. These scenes from a life are again solidly enough presented, but seem themselves mere glimpses, slivers of a life rather than a whole. Effective enough, parts also seem rather forced (especially the pre-pubescent sexual banter and boasting). They read like attempts at reclaiming pieces of childhood that made the man, but only some are successful.
       The third part is An African Story, in which the narrator recounts another man's tale, the story of a South African writer named Lourens Prinsloo, now dead. The narrator introduces Prinsloo and describes some of his work, but the story is of how the writer left his wife for a black woman. Sex, again is at the centre, as sex takes the place of his writing. He is not unmanned, but he is no longer a writer.
       The relationship goes well enough for a while, until the woman, now his second wife, becomes pregnant. That is apparently all she wanted from him, but he finds it hard to accept that. Instead of writing, he is at least "living an African story", but as soon as he wants to determine the action it falls apart on him.
       Both this and the final piece, Disheveled Nymphs, read much like pieces from Theroux's Hotel Honolulu, the central characters like some of the lost souls that stay at that establishment. The last story is about a wealthy lawyer who has retired to Hawaii and becomes fascinated by his cleaning women, a mother-and-daughter team, eventually following them on their semi-annual vacation to Las Vegas. This story ends with something of a happy ending, a love affair that (at least for a few years, until the death of the lawyer) is a happy one; interestingly, Theroux explains that part of it only summarily, dwelling on the awkward part leading up to it instead.

       This collection of stories deals mainly with sex and the consequences, and Theroux considers a wide variety of possibilities, from the boy who only catches glimpses of things he does not yet comprehend to the all-out servicing of the old lady in the title story. The idea that every person only has one fundamental story that defines them is mentioned right in the very first pages, and it crops up (or is at least implied) repeatedly. A Judas Memoir seems like an attempt to find that story, An African Story is clearly an example of one.
       The stories are also about communication, and the lack thereof. Several feature oblique and private communication, and central characters who try to decode (more and less successfully) what people say, or what gestures and actions mean. Usually they are quite bad at it; certainly it is something that makes them feel unsure -- and all these central characters are unsure of themselves and the world.
       The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro is a competent collection. Theroux writes well, and has some decent stories, but he doesn't seem to be able to convey exactly what he's after here -- hence the several varied attempts. Ultimately, the whole collection -- like his central characters -- seems too unsure of itself.

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The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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© 2004-2024 the complete review

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