Magical realism as a genre holds little appeal for me. Itís not that I donít like magic, or the unexplained -- both of these are fine, in the hands of a capable author. But when highly unlikely stuff is thrown about left and right, scattered like fairy dust on every page, it starts to feel gratuitous and sloppy, absurd for absurdís sake, like the nonsensical bedtime stories parents improvise for their children at night. If a storyís worth telling, thereís no need to resort to a barrage of ever more improbable gimmicks to keep the readerís interest.
Ramona Drottoveo is an albino chambermaid at an Italian villa in an unspecified time period (itís after Marie Antoinette, but before automobiles replace horse-drawn carriages). Deeply dissatisfied with her humble station, Ramona dreams of becoming a famous opera singer and living a life of luxury. Her arrogance and vanity are inflamed by her mysterious, magical scent -- a powerful, intoxicating aroma that turns men into witless, slavering fools, ready to kill each other for another whiff of Ramona. Indifferently lifting her skirts for whichever man she deems least repulsive at the moment, Ramona has enjoyed -- or rather, tolerated -- many partners at the ripe old age of nineteen. When the reticent beekeeper (the only village man who has, infuriatingly, resisted her charms) professes his love and begs Ramona to marry him, she shrugs and agrees, much to the dismay of her horde of lovers. Not to worry, though; after some perfunctory marital duty, sheís back to her scandalous ways on her wedding night.
The next day, Ramona meets a hunky stranger on the grounds. Heís the beekeeperís new assistant, of course, Rinaldo by name. Ramona immediately retires to bed with him; when their shouts of lust summon the beekeeper, he witnesses his wifeís infidelity and kills himself with his own bees. Ramona could care less, because sheís now free to marry Rinaldo and run off to the city to pursue her career. However, since Ramona is stupid, unskilled, and lazy, itís up to Rinaldo to find what work he can to support them both, while his wife howls and whines for new dresses and baubles. While Rinaldo is out looking for employment, Ramona begins a dalliance with a hunchbacked neighbor, using her bewitching smell to secure his affections.
Meanwhile, Ramona has become pregnant. In due time, she gives birth to an albino daughter, who, for no good reason, has an accelerated rate of physical growth. In a couple of days, the newborn Blandina doubles in size; in a month, she looks to be three or four years old, and so on. Much to Ramonaís dismay, her wonderful smell disappears immediately after giving birth to Blandina. Never beautiful, and now bloated and ugly from glutting herself during pregnancy, Ramona is now a monstrosity. When a wild brawl between Rinaldo, the hunchback, and the landlordís family leaves her husband dead on the floor, Ramona heads back to the country estate to throw herself upon her former employerís mercy. Youíd never believe me if I told you what happened after that, so I wonít; suffice it to say that, after a further helping of ridiculous developments, the story sputters to a halt as gracelessly as it began.
Lily Prior plays the story for laughs, killing minor characters left and right in the most implausible of ways (a slew of characters destroy themselves and/or their loved ones in despair after getting a whiff of Ramonaís scent, for example). Alas, itís just not funny, and the spectacle becomes ever more pathetic as the bodies pile up. Since this is evidently a satire, or a farce, or something, the author doesnít bother to make any of the characters rounded, sympathetic, or believable; Ramona is a vile excuse for a human, who gleefully sends men to their destruction, and all the likeable characters get killed off. Perhaps the author intended some symbolic meaning with the magical scent, but it never comes through; nobody even seems particularly surprised that a woman can exude a mystical man-catching fragrance strong enough to reel in an entourage of hundreds. Prior breaks all kinds of rules, and for no good reason. After reading Nectar, Iím none the wiser as to what, if anything, the story is about.
The writing is similarly unimpressive, lackluster at its best and embarrassingly hokey at its worst, hamming it up in a futile plea for laughs. In fact, Iím not even certain whether this book deserves to be called magical realism; Iím beginning to think itís just derivative, self-indulgent writing with no purpose or message. And if thereís anything I like less than magical realism, itís a book that tries to be magical realism and fails. If there were justice in the world, Nectar would emit a horrible stench that would scare all potential readers away; as it is, youíll just have to take my advice and avoid this one.