As elegantly written and astutely observed as her fiction (Arlington Park, 2007, etc.), Cusk’s memoir describes looking at art and getting to know the locals from Tuscany to Naples.
The author and her husband sold their house in England, took their two daughters out of school and “decided to go to Italy, though not forever. Three months, a season, was as much of the future as we cared to see.” Cusk’s sharp wit is apparent even when perusing an Italian phrase book, “where Tony and Mario are forever ordering the appropriate coffee…and Marcella, in her loop of eternity, stands on a street corner in Verona asking Fabrizio for directions to the railway station.” She’s less appealing when bemoaning the physical ugliness of the modern world and snobbishly disdaining tourists who, like her, came to Italy to imbibe beauty. Just because these hapless folks stand in long museum lines—they hadn’t the foresight to book tickets ahead as Cusk did—and arrive in tour buses instead of in their own car, they aren’t necessarily incapable of appreciating Piero della Francesca or Raphael as much as the sensitive author. Still, Cusk’s assessments of art are wonderfully idiosyncratic, as is her analysis of Italian food: “soft and feminine…kind to children.” A cranky tour guide is preferable to a boring one, and except when dealing with the tourist hoi polloi, the author is sharp rather than nasty. Her account of a series of tennis matches brilliantly captures people’s personalities through their style of play, and her character sketches throughout are equally revealing. Husband and children are never named and deliberately left in vague outline, but we sense the family’s closeness and come to agree with Cusk that her daughters “have been formed, not bereaved,” by their sudden uprooting from everything familiar in their lives. Now they have their mother’s atmospheric account as a keepsake.
Not as agreeable as this season’s other Author Abroad memoir, Roland Merullo’s The Italian Summer (2009), but more rigorous and compelling.