A sojourn in a Sicilian village sorely tests the relationships of two couples.
Ephron’s fourth novel is clearly being told in retrospect by each of the four middle-aged tourists whose lives have exploded in a manner not revealed until the end. It starts innocuously enough, as an ironic travelogue about American sophisticates abroad, first in Rome and then in the ancient coastal town of Siracusa. Finn and Taylor, from Portland, Maine, and their Botticelli-blonde 10-year-old, Snow, are traveling with their New York friends Lizzie, a magazine writer, and her novelist husband, Michael. Finn, a restaurateur, and Lizzie had a fling years ago that still resonates with each of them. Taylor, an heiress who dabbles in the tourism industry, is mainly concerned about Snow, who suffers from “extreme shyness syndrome.” Snow is captivated by Michael, who clearly knows how to flatter females of all ages. He’s currently enmeshed in an affair with a younger woman, Kath, a hostess at his and Lizzie’s favorite Italian eatery back home. Lizzie chalks Michael’s aloofness up to his novel in progress based on Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. From Rome, Michael frantically texts and emails Kath, receiving no response. None, that is, until the group arrives in Siracusa and Kath turns up at their hotel, ostensibly by coincidence. By this time Michael had given up on Kath and Lizzie was heartened by her husband’s renewed attentiveness. The situation begins to resemble a Ford Madox Ford novel, with each narrator recounting and interpreting the same encounters from vastly differing perspectives. Finn resents Michael for his casual callousness toward Lizzie, Michael is torn between two women. (Under duress, he buys Kath a gaudy ring.) Taylor detests their no-star hotel, and Lizzie fails to suspect anything even when she sees Kath wearing a man’s shirt identical to Michael’s and carrying a copy of The Red and the Black.
As the clues pile up, the coming storm is expertly foreshadowed—but when it arrives, it's utterly surprising.