Organized around Claire's first-person narration, the framing story in "The Albanian Virgin" is familiar from such earlier books as Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), and Friend of My Youth (1990), in which female protagonists set out, with varying degrees of success, to make "a desperate change in [their] life." After arriving on the west coast, Claire opens a bookstore, hoping to gain some semblance of financial independence and to establish "connections" with the inhabitants and spirit of her new home. Although burdened by an initial sense of isolation and her guilt over past decisions, she is never totally despondent. Rather she is ambivalent, at times feeling like a woman who has "finally come out into the world in a new, true skin," at other times struggling to establish a new sense of balance and purpose in her life. It is in the bookstore that she meets and begins to form a relationship "both intimate and uncertain" with Charlotte and Gjurdhi, who visit regularly in their ongoing attempt to sell an eclectic collection of jewelry and antiquarian books. When Charlotte falls ill and is confined to a hospital bed, Claire becomes a frequent visitor, a role which soon involves listening to a dramatic tale Charlotte claims is her idea for a movie.
Structured as a third-person narrative, Charlotte's framed story opens in the 1920s with the discovery of a young Canadian woman in the mountains of northern Albania, her leg wounded "from a fall on sharp rocks when her guide was shot." Taken to a small village where she is nursed back to health, the woman awakens from an extended delirium to find herself with a new name, Lottar, given to her by the villagers, and a new "guide" to village life, an armed and fierce-looking Franciscan priest. Proving to be unskilled at all but the most menial of tasks demanded of the women in this alien culture, Lottar is to be sold into marriage to a wealthy Muslim. Her only other option, the Franciscan explains, is to take a public vow never to marry or have sex with a man, to become what the villagers call a Virgin. Conceding to this ritualized denial of her sexuality, Lottar escapes the arranged marriage and is left to her own devices tending sheep in the mountains. Later, when the villagers threaten to break their own cultural code and once again attempt to sell her into marriage, she escapes with the help of the Franciscan, first to a bishop's compound in the town of...
(The entire section is 992 words.)