Valerie Martin is the author of three short story collections and eight novels, including Mary Reilly, The Great Divorce, the Orange Prize–winning Property, and Trespass ( Selection Jan/Feb 2008).
The Story: Set in the New York theater world of the 1970s, Martin’s novel explores the disturbing friendship between two struggling young actors. While on holiday at the Jersey Shore, 22-year-old Edward Day leans on a faulty pier railing and tumbles into the sea. He is saved from drowning by Guy Margate, a fellow thespian who bears an uncanny resemblance to the handsome Edward. Over the years, the brooding, mysterious Guy becomes Edward’s main rival for acting roles and the affections of the lovely Madeleine Delavergne. And through it all, Guy never lets Edward forget that he owes him his life.
Nan A. Talese. 286 Pages. $25. ISBN: 9780385525848
Los Angeles Times
"The intimacy of Edward’s narrative voice is one of the novel’s most startling achievements. … Martin’s symbolic substructure—layers of repetition and mirroring—is so skillfully embedded in her story that we feel its effects without realizing it, like an understated but persuasive musical score." Regina Marler
NY Times Book Review
"Martin builds an ominous tension almost Hitchcockian in its trenchant and perverse knowledge about the human animal. … Edward Day has its deep pleasures, particularly in the ingenious way Martin probes the sensibility of an artist while using it as a prism through which to tell a tale." Laurie Winer
"Martin draws us skilfully and boldly into a world in which near drownings, lost loves, stalkers, and the loaded gun which must finally go off, are not nearly as terrifying as the unknowability of the human psyche." Kamila Shamsie
"The best thing about Martin’s novel is its portrait of the life of an actor. … It is a testament to the author’s skill that Edward’s shortcomings only serve to make the book more enjoyable." Stephen Amidon
"Unfortunately, the most formative and dramatic things about Edward are recalled in the first 30 pages. … Martin can’t keep Edward from sounding like a Method-acting parody." Linda Winer
Like Martin’s novel Mary Reilly, which is narrated by Dr. Jekyll’s faithful servant, The Confessions of Edward Day manages to be both subtle and forceful. Critics praised Martin’s ability to slowly build tension and keep readers on the very edge of their seats. They also enjoyed her depiction of the struggling actor’s world, with its endless waiter jobs, auditions, insecurity, and cutthroat competition. One notable exception, the critic from Newsday, felt that Edward’s character bordered on caricature, particularly when he admires himself in the mirror and makes wry observations about life and love. Still, most critics found Edward to be a flawed, intriguing, protagonist, and definitely one worth getting to know.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. Part I concludes with Edward wishing he could avenge his mother's death by making Helen pay for what she had done. Is this a form of misplaced anger? How does the theme of retribution play out throughout the novel?
2. Edward describes his rescue from the ocean in almost supernatural terms, and his resemblance to Guy is eerie, too. Throughout the novel, the two men compete for the same things, and in the end, one is left with nothing while the winner takes all. In a literal sense, the two are adversaries. How might their relationship be interpreted in a more figurative way? Is it possible that they are two halves of the same person? What does the novel say about how well we know ourselves?
3. About his initial decision to study acting, Edward says, “Inside a character I knew exactly who I was, the environment was controlled, and no one was going to do anything unexpected. It seemed a way of playing it safe. Of course, real acting is the farthest thing from safe a person can get.” Discuss this dichotomy. Why would Edward crave certainty? What about acting makes it unsafe?
4. At Marlene's cottage, Edward remarks to the reader, “Actors are a superstitious tribe.” Why do you think this might be? Do you think that luck plays a role in the success of an actor more than it does for those in other professions? Or is talent all it takes? How might any actor's constant need for approval affect them psychologically?
5. It's Edward's understanding that if Guy had not jumped into the ocean to save him, he would have drowned, and for that, “I owed him my life and my obligation was a bond that must endure between us forever.” Do you think this is a normal response? Would you feel the same? Or do you think Edward is more prone to feeling indebted and, if so, why?
6. Guy is consistently presented as being cold and humorless, but these are only Edward's observations. Do you think Edward's perception is correct? How do the other characters see Guy? Is it possible that Edward is blinded by his own myopia? Why would he be?
7. Edward considers himself a Method actor who acts from the inside out-in other words, his internal emotions inform his voice and behavior on stage. Guy, on the other hand, acts from the outside in-letting his body invoke an emotional response. While Edward and Guy are similar in many respects, why do you think the author chose to endow them with these different techniques?
8. When Edward acts with Marlene, he feels emotion on stage for the first time. Do you consider his emotion authentic? How much of what we witness on stage or in film would you consider “real”? Or is all acting pretending? Has this book changed your opinion about truth in art?
9. Edward often recounts events from his life as if they were scenes, describing them in theatrical terms. What do you think this says about him?
10. How did you feel when Teddy spilled the news that Madeleine had married Guy? Were you surprised? Were you sympathetic to Edward? Did your attitude toward either character change at this point?
11. How is Teddy's revelation about his sexual orientation relevant to the themes of the novel?
12. Did Madeleine's proclamation about her sex life with Guy change your attitude toward him? Do you think she was telling the truth?
13. A few events at the end of the novel alter Edward's understanding of Guy and Madeleine's relationship, and he finds himself shocked by even the mundane-or perhaps obvious-fact that they had been “playing house” together. Why do you think this comes as a surprise to Edward? Should it?
14. Chekhov's gun is a literary technique whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later on. Chekhov himself explained, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” What examples of this device can you find in The Confessions of Edward Day? How does the author create a sense of foreboding and tension?
15. Near the end of the novel, Edward considers the fact that Guy might have intended to take his place on stage in Uncle Vanya. Is this a plausible scenario? What do you make of Guy's motives throughout the novel? Why is he so unrelenting? How would the novel differ if it were written from his point of view? Why do you think the novel is limited to Edward's perspective?