The Italian Lesson

As this novel opens, two British couples are on the way to Italy for a vacation. William Farmer is a university lecturer in literature, wary about life and continually expecting accidents. His wife, Fanny, is recovering from the stillbirth of their child. Their friends, Jay and Lisa, are a bit different from the middle-class Farmers--Jay is involved in financing films, while Lisa takes care of him. Their trip starts inauspiciously. The night before their departure a bomb explodes at Heathrow Airport, setting the stage for later reports of terrorist activities. Problems continue as first there is a mix-up about their rental car, then a near accident on the way to the resort. This creates an atmosphere which pervades the whole novel and which is underscored by the Britishers’ view that everything is a “muddle.”

A series of brief vignettes interweaves the vacation activities of the two couples and several people they meet with reports of terrorism and seemingly random news events. The result is a complex, multilayered novel of manners. The actions of the characters and the plot about terrorist bombings are incidental to the study of how the characters approach life and how each is changed or reinforced by the influence of Italy. This Italian influence is reminiscent of that felt in some of the works of E.M. Forster. By a somewhat coy plot device, this is underscored by William’s personal research on Forster and the regular references to A ROOM WITH A VIEW.

Although it is short, this is not an easy novel to read and appreciate. It is written in the third person and is almost entirely in the present tense. This can create confusion, since at times it is not easy to distinguish the author’s narrative from a character’s thoughts and words. Those willing to persevere, however, may find themselves learning an Italian lesson.