Under the spell of Giotto’s celestial frescoes in Padua, Italy, a waspish American widow grapples with the emotional and intellectual baggage left behind after her husband's death.
The narrative thread runs idiosyncratically in Downing's new novel (Life With Sudden Death, 2009, etc.), which shifts unpredictably between the real-time unhappiness of recently bereaved 57-year-old Cambridge ex-librarian Liz Berman and the more highbrow art history analysis thrown up by the peculiar crew of intellectuals and fellow travelers she encounters on a faintly surreal trip to Europe. She's simultaneously furious at her dead husband, Mitchell, who had been unfaithful to her, and grieving over him; it was he who arranged the tour of Italy as a surprise for their 35th wedding anniversary (he had been planning to write a book about Dante). Though she never wanted to take the trip, Liz finds herself swept along by the art and the unpredictable encounters. Much of the conversation is about Dante’s Divine Comedy and its relationship to Giotto’s frescoes in Padua’s Arena Chapel. Clever, acerbic Liz is both terse and obliquely flirtatious with the many men she meets who tend, surprisingly, to be voluble, kindly and sometimes sexy. Notable among them is a mysterious doctor named T., burdened with two ex-wives and a daughter who recently committed suicide. Digesting her loss and fielding her family’s messages and events back home in Cambridge, Liz opts out of the tour and joins a conference studying the frescoes instead. When resolution and romance finally arrive, they are tidy, cute and no more convincingly real than the novel’s entire setup.
Photos, stick-figure sketches, comical Italian-accented English, intellectual freight, metaphors that turn literal and some good jokes pepper this novel, which is playful and erudite but also self-conscious and perhaps too restlessly rarefied.