Book Review: Antonia and her Daughters, Marlena de Blasi

Having read and loved Marlena de Blasi’s other ‘Italy’ books, I longed to read this one and share her next adventure -and I am so glad I did. De Blasi has this wonderful capacity to include the reader in her life, to open her door, take you by the arm, and welcome you into her adopted country, relationship with Fernando, house, bedroom, and most certainly, her kitchen. She also takes you along when she visits other people and we become privy to their lives and the role they’ll inevitably come to play in de Blasi’s. In her previous books, these encounters have been brief and tended to further our understanding of de Blasi and her relationship with her Venetian. This is where Antonia and her Daughters differs from de Blasi’s previous books. While the sense of the author and her warm and empathetic personality are evident, this story is very much as the title suggests: about an amazing 83 year old woman, Antonia, and her gorgeous daughters. It is also about the next generation of this family, very much a matriarchal one dominated by the tempestuous, intelligent and intense Antonia who feels, when she meets de Blasi, that she has found a worthy sparring partner. And believe me, Antonia doesn’t hold back. It’s testimony to de Blasi’s comprehension of human nature that she seeks to understand Antonia’s barbs, her attempts to challenge and embarrass an even undermine  her as well as her overt xenophobia, not simply relate it to us. That she patiently allows this woman to open herself to her and thus us by a slow retelling of her history, is superbly and sympathetically done. It is also incredibly respectful and honest. The story unfolds in typical Italian fashion, over laden tables, groaning with delicious repasts that have been lovingly prepared by the females. Between meals, walks, arguments and other episodes, Antonia’s tale and that of generations of Italian women (and those of other cultures) is revealed. Like an onion being peeled, we gradually get to the core of what makes Antonia the feisty, formidable and utterly fascinating creature that she is. When the reveal comes, and the heart of the story/person is exposed, it is powerful, emotional, tragic and beautiful.

From war time Italy through to the invasion of tourists and expats from Europe and America in contemporary times, who seek to interpret or worse, impose themselves and their ways on the Italian landscape and culture, this story spans many years, subjects and profound emotional states and how we recover (or not) from heart-ache and how the past inflects the present. It’s about memory, love, loss, family, friendship, the brutality and beauty of human nature; it’s about how we cope in extraordinary circumstances – how these can bring out the best and worst within us. It’s about cultural differences and similarities and what we can do to both sustain and bridge these. Beautifully written, the book has a haunting melodic quality that not only transported me to the Tuscan hills, but reminded me of the exquisite prose of Shirley Hazzard. The depth and richness of some of the dialogue makes you want to linger over it in the way you would a fine wine or, appropriately, a wonderful meal. I reached for my quote book a few times, wanting to remember lines such as : “Solitude untethered by love is loneliness…” or “there are no miracles to be had from geography” (though I couldn’t help but think that Elizabeth Gilbert – author of Eat, Pray, Love – might beg to differ!). These are just a couple out of a book that is filled with philosophical and practical gems. Furthermore. The end of the book contains recipes – so not only are our minds and heart nurtured by this book and the stories contained within, but our bodies as well. Thank you, yet again, Marlena de Blasi. Bellissimo!

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Book Review: The Venice Experiment

I have read a number of these impulsive relocation stories, where couples or families abandon (temporarily or permanently) their old lives in order to experience not just a sea-change but a cultural exchange, and in the process learn about themselves – generally, I love them. One of my favourite Venice stories is Marlena de Blasi’s 1000 Days in Venice and its sequel (just found out she has a new book out as well, set in Tuscany) – but there are many that recount the joys and sorrows of trying to fit into the elusive and sometime aloof society of Venice – a city that defies everything, including the imagination. The Venice Experiment is another in this genre and is the tale of Barry and his lovely wife, their dog and cat and the year they spend in the marvellous La Serenissima having moved from Florida.

These types of tales tend to follow the same route, despite the different locations: a mixture of quirky, heart-warming, self-deprecating, hilarious and sometimes really sad vignettes that serve to highlight the commonalities despite language, culture and other differences, between the dislocated couple and the locals. They are most often about our core humanity and that which brings us together than they are about what separates us. Traveling to Venice and living in an apartment in the Canereggio sestiere, before they move to another, more suitable accommodation, Barry and his wife soon learn that being a ‘local’ is an entirely new experience to that of being a tourist, no matter that they’ve spent a great deal of time in the canal-city previously and even know people there. Even without much language (which thy seek to rectify by attending classes) Barry particularly is quickly embraced by the community, to the point where he experiences the good and the bad: tardiness, an acqua alta (high tide), the casual approach Venetians have to business, and the sometimes frustrating lack of accountability when it comes to essential service provision. But he also experiences the warmth, dignity and generosity of the Venetians and develops his own appreciation for important things in life: conversation, friends, food and wine and the closeness that can grow when all four are combined. Mind you, the narrator, Barry, seems to be an unusually gregarious and genuinely nice guy who goes out of his way to learn the stories of those he encounters.

While I had some smiles and tears, I found this narrative a wee bit dull for this genre and surprisingly so for one set in Venice. There are others that are better written and where the story is genuinely moving and hilarious… With this one, there was a sense in which, despite the kindness of Barry and strangers, as a reader I found it hard to connect with him, his wife and either their travails or triumphs. His wife, for example, seemed to barely leave the kitchen (you do sort of find out the reason for that, but he was represented as more of an intrepid explorer than she was). I still enjoyed the account. But that’s the problem – it was an account. Nicely written, for sure, but in the end, it was simply an account. That Barry now runs tours through Italy is not a surprise nor is the fact that his wife (see, I can’t even remember her name, and I only finished the book last night! I do recall she’s a gorgeous red head that many admire) becomes a chef, and I was glad they were able to turn their year into something with such longevity and which gives them pleasure. So, as a life experiment, the year in Venice clearly worked, as a narrative, only just.

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