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by Jay Parini

Pub Date: March 5th, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-621071-2
Publisher: HarperCollins

An acclaimed poet, biographer, and novelist (The Last Station, 1990; Benjamin’s Crossing, 1997, etc.) memory-dips—and indulges his passions for mentor relationships and Italy: a lyrical and affecting coming-of-ager set in 1970 on the magical isle of Capri.

Alex Massolini, a young man in search of himself, takes a job as secretary to a famous Scots writer, Rupert Grant, a position that includes an initiation into Grant’s eccentric lifestyle and a place in the author’s unconventional “family.” The “smart son” from a working-class Pennsylvania Italian-American family, Alex abruptly drops out of Columbia University only a few credits away from graduation when his rebellious older brother, Nicky, is killed in Vietnam. In turmoil and with literary aspirations, he arrives at the Villa Clio and soon becomes embroiled in the ex-pat life. Sensuality is everywhere on the beautiful island, especially so in the Grant household. Grant’s 30-years-younger wife Vera takes Alex into her confidence and her kitchen (she’s an English heiress and cookbook author), and Grant’s young research assistants and “muses”—the refined English-American Holly and the torrid Neapolitan Marisa—take him into their beds. The villa is the scene of wonderful and tragic occurrences, and, in the tradition of Stingo in Sophie’s Choice and Nicholas Urfe in The Magus, Alex is both fascinated and repelled. Coming to terms with his brother’s death and his own future, befriending people like Father Aurelio and the French philosophy student Patrice, meeting real-life writers W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, and Gore Vidal (here Parini mines his personal roster of famous friends and acquaintances), Alex takes a journey of self-knowledge that’s ultimately an enviable experience.

Masterful prose, pacing, characterization, and ear for language.