A home in Rome: Travel memoir is good enough to eat
Special to The Seattle Times
Anthony Doerr will read from "Four Seasons in Rome"
at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St.,
Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Anthony Doerr is a lucky man. Returning from the Boise hospital where Shauna, his wife, had just given birth to twin boys, he opens the mail to find that he has won a prestigious award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters providing him with an apartment in Rome for a year, a studio in which to write anything he wishes, and a living stipend to help pay for it all.
Most people would consider dealing with newborn twins to be more than enough of a challenge for a year. Moving to a foreign country, even one as warm, familiar and welcoming to young families as Italy, would be a daunting challenge all by itself. To move to a foreign country with infant twins would strike most as nearly suicidal.
But Doerr and his young family do exactly that, and "Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World" (Scribner, 224 pp., $24) is his memoir of his year abroad, wandering through Rome's vibrant streets and learning doorpost-by-doorpost Italian language, history and culture. Doerr, a Boise author who has received numerous awards for his writing, including the O. Henry Prize (twice) and the Outstanding Book of 2003 Award from the American Library Foundation, is the author of "The Shell Collector" and "About Grace."
Doerr's writing is warm, colorful and flowing, and his day-by-day memoir brings the essence of Rome alive. Those incredible tomatoes, buttery yet simple sauces, freshly baked focaccia bread, and the smell of roasting pork waft through the pages of this book. To anyone who has spent time in Italy with young children, it only takes a few chapters to bring back to life every smiling little old Italian woman insisting in pinching cheeks and pronouncing "belissima!" To those who have never visited, the book is an introduction to the enrapturing power of Italian food, people and culture.
Of course, travel memoirs cram most bookstore shelves, stacked in drifts as the summer months approach. "A Year in Provence" has spawned a virtual industry of my-year-abroad travelogues. It doesn't take long to tire of the entire self-serving genre.
But this thin volume skirts the pitfalls that plague so many similar volumes. Doerr's writing, for one, is rich, vivid and almost worth the effort regardless of the topic. Unlike others who spend weeks, or even months, visiting Italy and return sprinkling their language with Italian, and imagining themselves part Italian, Doerr has no such pretensions. "I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman." Yet he perceptively describes the cultural differences, at once familiar, fascinating and yet unknowable for most Americans, and the astonishingly transformative power of living abroad and outside of the blaring 24/7 media whirlwind that dominates modern American life.
Doerr, like most new parents, is overwrought about the burdens of new parenthood, and it's difficult to avoid rolling one's eyes at his overly dramatic accounts of colic, sleepless nights and crying babies. Similarly, he exaggerates the challenges of navigating an Italian grocery store or communicating everyday needs without speaking Italian. Yes, it can be a challenge, but Rome is hardly a small town, Italian food and culture are hardly unknown to Americans, and English is, like a slow-moving plague, common throughout most of Italy and certainly throughout Rome.
But the sheer warmth and obvious sincerity of Doerr's writing is enough to overcome these minor obstacles. This book, like a long trip through a warm Italian night, is richly rewarding and well worth the effort.
Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company