In postwar Italy, a renowned poet/translator with suicidal tendencies and an enormous sex drive enjoys a love triangle with two American actresses who happen to be sisters.
Loosely basing her fictional Dante Sabato on Cesare Pavese, whose love affair with an American expat actress ended shortly before his death, McPhee (No Ordinary Matter, 2004, etc.) creates a jaded, cynical romantic hero with mildly perverse sexual habits and enormous guilt. In 1948, Dante meets the Godfrey sisters, who have moved to Rome after faltering careers in Hollywood. Their names reflect their very different natures. Gladys has a sexual appetite as large and kinky as Dante’s, while Prudence offers intellect and love. Dante quickly beds Gladys, then works on wooing Prudence. Soon the three are ensconced in an unspoken ménage a trios. Dante engages in a publicly acknowledged love affair with Prudence while meeting his more carnal needs with Gladys, and every other woman who crosses his path. In between trysts and literary gatherings—there is much intellectual and cultural name-dropping of everyone from T.S. Eliot to Errol Flynn to Dante’s beloved, elusive Hemingway—Dante reviews his life with dissatisfaction. He feels guilty that as a young boy he hesitated before saving his neighbor from a beating. He blames the accidental, perhaps suicidal death of his first sweetheart, the lynchpin of a love triangle with his best friend, on his aloof reaction when she announced her pregnancy. He refuses to take credit for his resistance fighting against the fascists, portraying his heroism in the darkest possible light. Dante’s interval of joy with the Godfreys ends when Gladys becomes pregnant and marries an American she’s met on a movie set. The sisters return to America. Dante takes to the sea in a dinghy. By then, put off by his world-weary, self-centered voice as narrator, readers may be rooting for Dante’s suicide.
A sexy but self-conscious recreation of post–World War II European malaise.