By Amy Wallace
The future of Lily van Velsen, San Francisco pearl “doctor” gemologist, looks assured, given her recent engagement to her goodnatured colleague Alan Purdue. But once she begins reading the diaries that recount many of her ancestors’ illicit romances and their relationships with demon lovers, she is driven toward a dark destiny of her own, in the form of an affair with artist Johnny Penthe and a yearning for the opium that can calm her spirit. Only when thus “purified” can she cut the “pearl of Celebes”, which carries a curse or blessing for its owner.
The perfect sphere inside a natural pearl is revealed by the skillful peeling away of the layers that hide it – and this is also how it is with Wallace’s haunting concoction of stories within stories in this unusually compelling first novel. (The daughter of Irving Wallace, her previous efforts include The Prodigy, a biography). Itself like an opium dream, the book hypnotically pulls the listener into its mysterious erotic core, never taking the cheap or easy way. Depicting the obsessions that drive people to fulfill or deny their hearts’ desires, Wallace demonstrates that the answer can come in the shape of sacred or profane love – or, sometimes, a rare blue pearl.