Forty-two-year-old Alan Orr walks the streets of Florence, Italy, immersed in the beauty of the city and nostalgia for his youth. His reminiscences mostly focus on Martin, an affectionate friend from his boarding school days, and Lauren, a married woman with whom Alan had an affair as part of her open marriage in the late 1970s. The nostalgia is sweet and somber, set against Florence’s enchanting piazzas, and the novel is full of Alan’s vivid observations, whether he’s describing a sexual encounter with Luca, a young prostitute, or eavesdropping on tourists’ conversations in a hotel lobby. After he returns home to San Francisco, he dines with his friend Matt, a composer who lives a solitary, work-focused life, not unlike Alan’s. Eventually, Matt introduces Alan to Nick, a younger man he’s fond of, and Alan comes to develop a liking for him as well. Alan fills his days with writing and walks and often exchanges affection and pleasantries with the male dancers at the Polk Street Theatre, who provide Alan “a holiday from himself.” Yet not even these intimacies can rescue Alan from a descent into depression, as his walks grow longer and his mind grows more unfocused. The novel sags when Alan goes into therapy, which allows for navel-gazing and elaboration of his back story, which includes an abusive father and a mother with a pill habit. In order to shake things up, Alan invites Nick on a return trip to Florence, only to find out that the company he most enjoys is his own. As time wears on, he gets the opportunity to reunite with both Martin and Lauren, leading to lifelike, if anticlimactic, closure. The narration slips between past and present events, which may sometimes leave readers lost. However, its poetic turns of phrase elevate Alan’s story from a morass of depression to an evocative stroll through the nostalgia of middle age. Florence, for example, is described as “a large, heady display of the human soul.” McKenzie expertly draws the secondary characters that Alan meets along the way, and their charisma and energy serve to balance Alan’s pensive moods. The settings are characters in themselves, and the colorful neighborhoods and streets of Florence, San Francisco and Boston help anchor Alan’s introspective story in strong senses of place.
A carefully crafted meditation on disappointment that includes many scenes of beauty worth savoring.