The book takes the form of an interview between I
and the heroine, Desideria. She is around twenty years old and is recounting her life, primarily in adolescence. She is the illegitimate foster daughter of a wealthy Roman widow. She spends most of her time eating and masturbating. Suddenly, while masturbating, she hears a Voice. This voice, she explicitly states, is like Joan of Arc's voice and takes over her whole life. In particular, it encourages her to revolt against bourgeois values and the individuals who stand for these values, particularly her foster mother, Viola, and Viola's lawyer/lover, Tiberi. She makes her foster mother's life miserable, taunting her both sexually (Viola is sexually attracted not just to Tiberi but also to women, include Desideria) and in her conflict between her sexual passion and her duty as a mother).
Inevitably, given the political climate in Italy at the time, the Voice will steer Desideria into terrorism. She takes up with Erostrato, a terrorist, and proposes that they kidnap Viola for ransom. Erostrato takes up with Viola, replacing Tiberi in her bed, but it turns out that Erostrato is a professional gigolo and now Desideria and her voice must rebel against him. Moravia paints a grim picture of contemporary Italy and lashes out at corruption, sexual depravity, religion, money and all the other things the bourgeoisie hold dear. But maybe the grimmest judgement is that Tiberi, who is sexually depraved, ethically depraved, corrupt, uses police spies, is a blackmailer and prays before sodomizing a young girl, is perhaps the most likeable of all the characters, Desideria included. What hope for Italy is Moravia's clear message.
First published 1978 by Bompiani
First English translation 1980
by Farrar, Straus