Reviewed by Marina Sofia
Let me start by saying: don’t believe the hype. This book is being marketed as psychological suspense, impossible to put down, a page-turning narrative of a holiday which ends in tragedy… Yet all of this description does the book a disservice, attracting the attentions of the wrong kind of reader. Those who are expecting a domestic noir type of story with plenty of twists and turns will invariably be disappointed. This is far more of a comedy of manners – or rather a tragicomedy, because yes, something tragic does happen towards the end and it is heavily foreshadowed throughout the book.
Most of the book, however, is more about close observation of characters, human foibles and the cringeworthiness of Americans abroad. This is a modern portrayal of E.M. Forster’s Room with a View (replace the English with the Americans) a decade or more down the line, when the characters have become middle-aged and bored. The tension is built up very gradually, through subtle use of dialogue and the clever use of alternating and quite distinct points of view.
It is the story of two American couples in their forties on vacation in Italy, first in Rome and then in Siracusa, Sicily. Throughout, we have access to the thoughts and emotions of these four self-absorbed adults, but not those of the ten-year-old daughter of one of the couples, an enigmatic child, old before her time, who is silently observing and judging them.
Lizzie is a stalled feature writer, whose commissions have been drying up, as has her marriage to the Pulitzer-winning playwright Michael. Michael has never quite lived up to his early promise and is trying to find inspiration in Italy to finish his novel. He is somewhat bored of his wife and has been having an affair with the waitress at their favourite restaurant back home. Here is Michael’s cold calculating look at his wife the morning after their first night in Rome:
Breakfast. Lizzie was excited about the buffet. “I’ll meet you there,” she said. From the bed I watched her dress. Critically. Her breasts, sloping now, bottom-heavy. She wiggled as she adjusted them in the cups of her bra, and threw me a look, a half smile, enjoying my watching. Her waist was a memory hidden in a crease in her sides, and her stomach, once flat, now pillowy… Her once gorgeous legs were getting meatier in the thighs.
Lizzie doesn’t know about the affair but is determined to regain her husband’s affection during this trip, although she is not adverse to a little comforting from her former boyfriend, Finn, who has always hinted he would love to have her back.
Finn is a successful chef, who enjoys showing off his knowledge of Italian cuisine as well as stirring up trouble between the two women in his life. Meanwhile, his highly-strung wife Taylor is super-organised and highly efficient, but under-sexed and the very definition of a helicopter parent. And then there is Snow, the far too quiet and observant little girl. A few sentences give you an instant flavour of the relationship between Taylor and Snow, as well as an insight into three characters simultaneously:
In Rome that first evening, while I brushed her hair, which I love to do, I kept up a patter about what we might eat for dinner, the sights we would see tomorrow. I always do that. Preparation lessens anxiety, that’s my belief. Snow bit her nails. I shouldn’t mention that. It makes her sound like an animal and not the gracious pretenn she is. But, and I do hope she grows out of it, she does bite her nails to the nub. This is all part of what her paediatrician diagnosed, when she was five, as extreme shyness syndrome. Finn said, Bullshit.
Unsurprisingly, with such an ill-assorted group, the stress of travelling soon takes its toll on old friendships and marriages. Ephron is most at ease when she is mocking the pretentious of the moneyed middle classes or the New York artistic milieu. None of the characters are likable and they seem to bring out the worst in each other even when they try to show solidarity or friendship. Their behaviour towards the child veers from over-protection to manipulation to thoughtless neglect within minutes. The only one who seems to have a dram of self-awareness is Lizzie:
Marriage. With whom do you want to take the journey? The thinker, Michael? … Or the free spirit, Finn? Do you want to take it with someone who knows you, even intuits your secrets, or from whom you can remain hidden?… And why do most of us want marriage? Crave it for status or for stability that is an illusion. Marriage cannot protect you from heartbreak or the random cruelties and unfarinesses life deals out. It’s as if we’re chicks pecking our way out of our shells, growing into big birds splendid with feathers and then piece by piece, we put the shells back together, reencasing ourselves, leaving perhaps an eyehole, minimal exposure.
There are plenty of strange incidents and petty quarrels, both in Rome and Siracusa. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of alpha male tension between Finn and Michael. Finn’s daughter Snow seems captivated by Michael’s charisma and storytelling abilities (much like Lizzie herself in the early years of their marriage). There is a very funny scene at the Trevi Fountain, when one of their party attempts a re-enactment of La Dolce Vita.
And then there is the evening when Lizzie light-heartedly asks: ‘Would you give an alibi to someone you loved for a crime they committed?’ In typical chattering classes fashion, they engage in a sterile theoretical debate without any thought for the consequences. Later on, when they find themselves in this brutal situation, their reactions are surprising. Some of them will find their self-delusions shattered, while others emerge with them intact.
In conclusion, this is a holiday read, albeit with more depth and social satire than the typical airport literature. Although I enjoyed the wit and sarcasm, there is also a tinge of melancholy and resignation which I found more memorable than in most summer reads. In fact, it resembles Henry James without the overly pedantic sentences, Edith Wharton with an unvarnished humour, while the sardonic details of marital breakdown, infidelity and indifference will remind readers of Ephron’s more famous sister Nora.
Marina Sofia blogs at Finding Time to Write [https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com]
Delia Ephron, Siracusa (Oneworld, 2017). 9781786071545, 302pp., trade paperback.
BUY Siracusa from the Book Depository.