Prantera (Letter to Lorenzo, 1999, etc.) gathers a middle-aged cast of characters to enact an amateur version of Mozart’s well-known opera, touching with gentle humor on that work’s themes of the heart’s durable passion in competition with the mortal limits of body and time.
“You’ve only got to think of how people in extreme situations . . . club together to stage an entertainment: it’s not for the spectacle, it’s for those taking part,” one character aptly observes. Set in Italy, the story begins as failing novelist and philosopher Lord Henry Thirsk agrees to stage a benefit production of the opera—partly as a distraction from his own stalled writing career and partly to enthuse a touch of vigor into his 56 year-old life. Gaia, his younger wife, is delighted: even as she carries a thinning hope for his fiction work, she frets that his love for her has declined, thus clouding the possibility that they’ll ever have children. Enter Joanna, an artist and set designer on leave from her tortured marriage to Orso in Rome. Thirsk enrolls her help in painting scenery, and her bright energy kindles his dormant appetite for life. As Joanna fends off phone calls from her unreliable husband, her housekeeper Amabile watches the developing affair with Thirsk and the opera with unjaundiced, simple adoration. With son recently lost in an auto accident, and a daughter-in-law arrested for drug possession, Amabile grounds the whimsical proceedings with commonsensical observations and stout naïveté. While the performance itself is of little narrative concern here, Prantera gently prods her people through the stress of the production, a comical disaster that ironically reseals the bonds pried open and widened as the novel progresses. “Love,” Thirsk muses, “is knowing there’s better, but choosing . . . to stay put.”
With little decoration and an easy touch, Prantera offers a charming, if limited, comedy of matured love and virtuous compromise.