L’America chronicles the elation, frustration, and heartbreak of first love, with all its energy, dramatic thrill, and, finally, pathos when the seemingly possible becomes obviously and painfully impossible. Cesare and Beth experience the power of physical love and emotional addiction in a life-altering attraction that lasts for twenty years, even after both marry other people.
In somewhat convoluted fashion, author Martha McPhee takes the reader on a journey through the lives of characters that spans five centuries. Opening in the 1500’s with a description of an Italian fresco painting, McPhee introduces the Cellini family of Citta, Italy. The fresco depicts a handsome boy straining to pursue the clouds while an obviously love-struck girl reaches for his hand, as if to tether him to her or perhaps to flee skyward with him. The girl is Valeria Cellini, an ancestor to Cesare. According to Cellini family lore, Valeria would have decided in the end not to leave her family or home to follow the boy, no matter how much she loved him; such is the strength of Cellini duty and loyalty to tradition and place. This ascribed trait is important and will show up in Cesare five hundred years later as he lets himself believe for a while that he can reject wealth, the comforts of a patriarchal family structure, and fidelity to age-old traditions to forge a new life in America with Beth.
McPhee cleverly employs a description of the fresco and the dissection of its subjects as an analogy to a modern version of the story implicit in the ancient artwork. Some readers may find this tactic cloying or even annoying; others will appreciate the author’s ability to achieve a full-length and interesting novel from such a premise.
Cesare Cellini is Italian, rich, handsome, and a young college student on holiday in Greece when he meets Beth. All of his life, Cesare has admired America, and he longs to become a part of this land of freedom and opportunity. It is not clear why, with plenty of money and indulgent parents, Cesare failed to visit America before meeting Beth. It is clear that Cesare feels constrained by the expectations placed on him by his family and centuries of Cellini tradition, among which is to replace his father one day as a prominent Citta banker, a position that has achieved a revered status in the town. Cesare dreams of life in America, where young people are free to choose their own careers and lead life according to their own ambitions, rather than those that are mandated by culture and tradition. At the same time, Cesare seems to much enjoy the exceedingly comfortable lifestyle provided by the prosperity of his father’s banking business.
Cesare’s Italy, as portrayed by author McPhee, may place the burdens of history and tradition on its citizenry but is otherwise practically irresistible. It brims with classically stylish men and women and overflows with perfect pastas graciously served in lovely villas amid picturesque backdrops. McPhee joins a long line of American novelists who have a fascination with the venerability and breadth of European history and the sense of place and tradition found in European culture. In L’America, as in many American novels that contrast new America with old Europe, it is America that, intentionally or not, the author depicts as faintly lacking. McPhee’s Italy is lush, protective, solid, and cohesive, its citizens cosseted by effortless beauty and timeless traditions, which lend a sense of safety and security within its ancient geography. By contrast, in many segments of the novel, America is a place of crass grasping for wealth, a putting on of airs by those who are, admittedly, otherwise good people of fine character. Also interwoven within the pages of this book is the sense of America as a place as dangerous as it is dynamic, as illustrated by the terrorist strike on the World Trade Center in New York City, famously remembered as 9/11. L’America focuses a good deal on American politics and...
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