Cilla Messing’s ex-boyfriend, Guy, a movie director with a thriving career, still calls her when he needs to troubleshoot. He trusts her sharp eyes on his budget, and the way she has of sweet-talking investors — one of the forms of seduction she learned growing up in Hollywood.
She used to be a producer, once upon a time, and she’s only 43. But the last decade has been consumed with caretaking and loss: her father’s illness and death, and more recently her younger sister’s. Now it’s her mother, a tetchy famous actress, who’s on the decline, with Cilla looking after her in Malibu.
Single, her career on hold, her family dying off: This is not the life she intended to live. So when her mother lands in a rehab facility with a fractured pelvis, and her widowed brother-in-law invites her for a summer stay in Rome, it takes about three seconds before Cilla books herself a flight.
Ostensibly she’s there to help with her teenage niece, Hannah, who’s been having trouble since the death of her mom, Cilla’s sister, Emily. But soon Cilla’s secret priority is Hannah’s friend, Donato, the charming neighbor who, at 17, is at first reflexive and then earnest in his flirtations.
And, hey, Cilla was just 15 when she took up with Guy, her father’s protégé, who at the time was more than twice her age. The form of seduction she aims at Donato she learned from Guy — though really it’s predation, of course.
Just listen to the youthward tilt of Cilla’s lustful musings about Donato: “That square chin and aquiline nose — that dark untamed hair. He must have been a beautiful baby. I can picture it perfectly: baby Donato is fussy, with latching difficulties.”
It’s absurd. It’s alarming. It’s also a vivid, female mirroring of men’s more socially tolerated pursuit of girls young enough to be their daughters.
“The Worst Kind of Want,” Liska Jacobs’s overloaded, slow-to-start follow-up to her debut novel, “Catalina” (2017), doesn’t ask us to root for Cilla. It doesn’t even ask us to like her, which is just as well.
It’s a mystery why 15-year-old Hannah and her dad, Paul, feel as much affection for her as they do; likewise why people Cilla meets are immediately drawn to her. It’s odd not so much because she’s bitter and self-pitying, though she is, but because she’s not very interesting company.
For us, at least, that changes the more she allows herself to lose control, giving in to her treachery and betraying just about everyone around her. Principal among them is Hannah, unrequitedly smitten with Donato and unaware that Aunt Cilla, the kind of houseguest who can’t be trusted not to swipe her niece’s strawberry lip balm, has no scruples about stomping on her heart.
Like Donato, poor Hannah has no idea how young teenagers truly are, or how much maturing even the smartest and most sophisticated of them still have to do. Cilla sees that clearly in her niece but willfully blinds herself to it in Donato, convincing herself despite his mother’s indulgent doting that he’s a man, not a boy.
Cilla should know better; she does know better. Guy, in his 30s, was a fixture in her childhood home. Her parents never thought not to let him near her and Emily, and the girls never told on him. As a trusted adult who insinuates herself into her niece’s social circle, Cilla perpetrates a similar kind of damage.
The frantic, ferocious yearning that she harbors for Donato is inextricable from her need to feel alluring — to quell what she calls her “creeping suspicion that I may no longer be a sexual creature.”
The speed of growing up, and of growing old, is central to ”The Worst Kind of Want.” The mind-set of Hollywood, an industry smitten with the myth of Lolita and repelled by the sight of women over 40, has shaped Cilla all her life. Rome has very different attitudes.
The book does ask that we understand Cilla: the spirit-crushing strain that caring for her parents has entailed; the ache she still has for Guy, who never was faithful in all their years together and who has recently thrown her over for a ridiculous young woman; the muted grief Cilla feels for Emily, and the regret that they were stubbornly estranged.
That’s rich material, yet Jacobs never settles on a tone for what is in effect a travelogue about sex, death, and cycles of abuse. Some main themes and principal characters feel underdeveloped, while the copious descriptions of Rome are blandly touristy. Puglia, in southern Italy, proves a more felicitous backdrop.
For such a slender book, it’s overstuffed with ideas. It might have done better streamlined into a novella or expanded into a deeper, more ambitious novel.
Still, as Jacobs weaves Cilla’s past with her present, what emerges is an unmistakable pattern of injury. The novel ends with first one jolt, then another, and in their wake you see how insidious the harm is, and how irreversible.
THE WORST KIND OF WANT
By Liska Jacobs
MCD, 204 pp., $26
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.