This brooding, bittersweet work, neither utterly tragic nor notably optimistic, begins with the sights and sounds of Christmas Eve. Aaron Sisson has been gathering sweets, candles, and holiday ornaments for his family. As they prepare their decorations, his oldest daughter, Millicent, senses that something is not quite right with him. At a party that night, Aaron appears openly relieved to be away from his wife and daughters. He is also intrigued by Josephine Ford, the fiancee of Jim Bricknell, their host’s son. Quite abruptly, Christmas comes and goes, and several days afterward, Aaron departs from his home, leaving his wife with a schedule of payments from their bank for the family’s support.
Aaron has surreptitiously packed a few possessions, including his flute and piccolo; later he appears at the London opera. After the performance, he takes part in a discussion of the issues of the day with his earlier companions. He is introduced to Rawdon Lilly, a man of uncertain means who seems to frequent social gatherings. He and Jim Bricknell exchange stories from World War I, and with Aaron they consider the war’s portent for society at large. Aaron subsequently has dinner with Josephine Ford, alone, and they meet again in April. When Aaron is unexpectedly taken ill, he goes to Rawdon Lilly, confesses that he has allowed Josephine to seduce him, and complains that his health has suffered inexplicably as a result. After a brief visit to a doctor—evidently to treat a mild case of influenza—Lilly suggests that Aaron may find employment with his music in Italy. In September, once the opera season in London has concluded, Aaron returns briefly to his home; no reconciliation with his wife is possible. She cannot find any explanation for his desertion and condemns him as a vile coward. He is certain that no love exists between them anymore.
With only sporadic engagements in London, Aaron becomes fretful and uneasy. He reconsiders Lilly’s proposal and, albeit with some misgivings, decides to set off for Italy. The pursuit of his calling takes him from Novara to Milan and then to Florence. Along the way, he is perturbed by unfavorable currency exchange rates, high prices for goods, and problems in establishing living accommodations. In Milan, he is disquieted when someone fires two shots at a dog, and again when the police round up political demonstrators. In Florence, his letter-case, with a certain sum of money, is taken from his person; he feels certain that passing soldiers stole it. While England had seemed weary and gloomy in the war’s aftermath, Italy appears unsteady and restless as agitation spreads across the country. Aaron encounters various expatriates who, in their own ways, ponder the concerns of their times.
Some of the emigres are decidedly more interesting than others. Aaron finds Francis Dekker and Angus Guest dull and trivial, and he has some difficulty putting up with James Argyle, an English writer. The ubiquitous Rawdon Lilly is somewhat more thoughtful, though a bit abrasive at times. In Florence, Aaron is introduced to Nan, the Marchesa del Torre. An American woman of about forty, originally from...
(The entire section is 798 words.)