Summer Reading Special: A Bibliophile’s Miscellany of Italy
Although I’ve lived in the United Kingdom for eight years now, I’ve never made the (relatively) short jaunt over to Italy. But, like many of you, I feel I know the country’s cities and countryside through the media of film and literature, as well as the endless pleasures of its mouth-watering food.
In this second of my summer reading specials (see my previous article on books set in France), I offer a diverse list of my ten favorite books about Italy: you’re sure to come away with an appetite for travel yourself.
1. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (1908)
Forster’s classic novel of the English overseas sees naïve young Lucy Honeychurch touring Florence and Rome with her busybody cousin and trying to decide between two very different suitors. Don’t miss the unforgettable scene in which Lucy, lost and disoriented despite her precious Baedeker guidebook, stumbles upon the scene of a murder in a main square in Florence. Her blood-stained postcards emphasize the divide between her rosy visions of life abroad and the sometimes violent realization that human nature is the same wherever you go. The plot’s wanderings are all set in motion by the lady travelers’ insistence on finding every tourist’s prize: a hotel “room with a view.”
2. Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr (2007)
Doerr’s charming memoir is subtitled “On twins, insomnia and the biggest funeral in the history of the world,” which gives you a few clues about the randomness of his subject matter. He and his wife flew out from Idaho to spend a marvelous year in Rome, thanks to his prestigious award from the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Letters – but as parents of newborn twin boys, the culture clash was even more noticeable. Adjusting to parenthood and floundering in a foreign culture and language are difficult enough experiences separately, but put them together and you have a recipe for utter bewilderment – “Is this what it means to be a parent—to constantly fail to be in control of anything?” Doerr wondered. His book is not just an evocative tribute to the city his family came to love, but a tale of a bold adventure he almost didn’t attempt: “We came to Rome because we’d always regret it if we didn’t, because every timidity eventually turns into regret.” (P.S. The funeral was Pope John Paul II’s.)
3. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
In this, the best of Highsmith’s wonderfully sophisticated suspense novels (and the first in a series devoted to her amoral and sexually ambivalent antihero), Tom Ripley takes over his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf’s decadent expatriate life in Italy. Success as an imposter requires Tom to commit a string of dispassionate murders; you may be disturbed to find yourself rooting for a remorseless killer. The Italian setting only adds glamour to Ripley’s hedonistic pursuits. The late Anthony Minghella’s 1999 movie version, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Gwyneth Paltrow, is also highly recommended.
4. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes (1996)
What Peter Mayle did for the Provence region of southern France, Mayes does for Tuscany here and in the series of travel books that followed. She is central Italy’s American chronicler and champion, and you can’t help but fall in love with it too as you read about her relationship with Bramasole, an abandoned 200-year-old villa in the countryside. Newly divorced and seeking a simpler and more deliberate life rooted in a beautiful place, Mayes struggled to renovate a crumbling villa but also came to delight in authentic Italian cuisine. I also loved her 2006 book A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller, a terrific collection of travel writings celebrating Western Europe and the Mediterranean.
5. Appetite by Philip Kazan (2013)
Kazan’s first novel is a luscious feast for the imagination set in late fifteenth-century Florence. Nino Latini has inherited his twin passions for food and art from his butcher father and his uncle, painter Filippo Lippi. As the years pass Nino becomes an illustrious chef, creating elaborate allegorical (and aphrodisiacal) banquets for the de’ Medicis, the Borgias, a cardinal, and the Pope himself. Nino’s search for love – and for the perfect dish – will take him to Rome, on pilgrimages, through brothels and back to a Florence torn apart by coups. (See my full review at We Love This Book.)
6. Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (2011)
From a fictional chef to a real-life one: Hamilton’s memoir is full of the pleasures of eating, as you would expect from the head chef of New York City restaurant Prune. How she morphed from small-time crook to creative writing student to tough-as-nails restaurant entrepreneur to meek wife and doting mother seems a testament to how mysterious and arbitrary life can be. In one of her more memorable life turns, Hamilton meets Michele, a stereotypically romantic and taciturn Italian man, and their green card marriage allows for summer trips to his family home in Puglia. Hamilton loves her Italian mother-in-law and delights in finding fresh, local ingredients, but her attempts to integrate into Italian life fail – like her marriage, her Italian dream is a fraud. Her story is ultimately a melancholy one, rather like a pessimist’s Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert’s delightful memoir, which, though overexposed in 2006-10, is also well worth reading): it’s about a foodie who makes it professionally, but bombs personally.
7. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912)
Mann’s intriguing novella tells the story of a writer’s summer of epiphanies at a resort in disease-ridden Venice. Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful middle-aged author who has come up against writer’s block, swiftly becomes enamored with the teenage son of an aristocratic Polish family staying at his hotel. His fascination with Tadzio leads him to follow the boy around Venice and mask his age with a humiliating combination of face paint and hair dye. The reader is never entirely sure whether Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio are sexual; Mann wanted to exploit the uncomfortable pseudo-pedophiliac nature of the relationship to portray “passion as confusion and degradation.” The result is a memorable picture of obsession and detachment from the morality of one’s own actions.
8. Thin Paths: Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village by Julia Blackburn (2011)
An accomplished English novelist and biographer, Blackburn is another transplanted devotee of the Italian countryside. She and her husband keep a home in the northern region of Liguria, which they explored through its tracery of mountain paths and abandoned villages, learning the tragic stories of the residents who were caught between fascist and partisan factions during the Second World War. Blackburn’s meandering mixture of history, memoir, and travel narrative may be too digressive for readers who prefer a more focused storyline, but there are many remarkable moments as she salvages forgotten stories from half a century before.
9. When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale (2008)
Like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Kneale’s latest novel is narrated by a young boy who doesn’t quite understand everything that’s happening in his family. The use of a child narrator is a classic technique for creating dramatic irony between what the protagonist comprehends and what the canny reader intuits. Here it allows readers to see a more sinister plotline developing alongside what nine-year-old Lawrence thinks is a simple family holiday in Rome with his mother and little sister.
10. Risotto with Nettles: A Memoir with Food by Anna Del Conte (2009)
Del Conte’s account of her life with food – growing up in Milan in the 1930s and moving to England after meeting husband Oliver during her au pair year – is an enjoyable addition to the relatively new “foodie memoir” or “memoir with recipes” genre. Though not as well-written or captivating as cook Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper or restaurant critic Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, it is a sweetly unpretentious book similar to Colette Rossant’s dual-country memoirs, Madeleines in Manhattan and Apricots on the Nile.
I valued Anna Del Conte wise (and cautionary) words about the difficulty of dividing one’s self between two countries, a challenge for any immigrant:
“I have become a hybrid, fitting properly neither here nor there, being neither English nor any longer Italian, always missing something when I am here or something else when I am there…One might have a less dull life, more interesting experiences, broader education, but the price is high.”
And on that rather sobering note, I shall conclude this literary exploration of Italy.
Are you a lover of Italy, through real-life experience or through literature?
Name some of your favorite Italian-themed novels and nonfiction in the comments box below.
(The featured image of Florence, shot from Campanile di Giotto, is by Scott Raymond [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)