McPhee (Gorgeous Lies, 2002) uses the star-crossed, cross-Atlantic affair of a young American woman and her Italian lover to muse on questions of national character and the power of history in individual lives.
Cesare grew up surrounded by wealth and family history in the Italian city where his ancestors have prospered for 500 years. Beth was raised unconventionally, first in a Pennsylvania commune begun by her eccentric father, then in her equally eccentric maternal grandmother’s Manhattan apartment. In 1982, Beth and Cesare meet while Beth is traveling in Europe before college. They fall rapturously in love, their passions enhanced by the attraction each feels for the other’s culture. Having learned through Cesare to speak, eat and dress Italian, Beth is often mistaken for an Italian later in life. For Cesare, who is in love with America from afar, particularly American literature, Beth is L’America. But Cesare is tied to his family’s heritage and to its expectations. Although Beth persuades him to visit her in America while she is studying at NYU, his future is already decided, and he lacks the will—or perhaps the desire—to change course. He recognizes that he is bound to his personal past in ways Beth is not. The more adventurous Beth stays in Italy for long stretches but ultimately cannot give up America and the ambitions she has been raised to pursue. She begins to view Cesare’s unwillingness to leave his family as a kind of laziness. Gradually, their relationship sours, then peters out. Each marries someone else, but they still long for each other until Beth dies in the World Trade Center bombing on 9/11. The author’s scattershot approach—she eschews a linear plot line—is initially distracting, then merely annoying.
Ambitious and literate but also off-putting—everyone lives in a rarified atmosphere, the Americans as well as the Italians.