The Italian Lover is the story of two middle-aged Americans who meet and fall in love. Woody is a Classics professor who teaches American students in Italy, and Margot is a restorer of ancient manuscripts with a studio in Florence. They are an interesting couple, and interesting things happen to them: a movie producer is making a film version of a memoir Margot wrote years before and Woody and Margot work on a screenplay together. We also get to know the movie producer, the director, and the cast of the movie. Margot and Woody are intelligent and well educated, and there is much talk of literature, art, film, and history. It’s a good formula for a lovely literary novel set in Italy.
But wait, there’s more going on here. Years ago I read another book by Hellenga called The Fall of a Sparrow and it remains one of my favorite books of all time. I always meant to get around to his first novel The Sixteen Pleasures, and another recent one, Philosophy Made Simple, but didn’t quite. What I failed to realize is that The Italian Lover is a sequel to all three of these earlier books. Woody is also the protagonist of The Fall of a Sparrow, and Margot’s story is in both The Sixteen Pleasures and Philosophy Made Simple (the protagonist of this one is her father). To complicate matters further, The Sixteen Pleasures is the memoir (really a novel!) that they are filming in The Italian Lover.
I would like to tell you that you could read and enjoy The Italian Lover without having read any of the previous books, and maybe that’s true. But knowing Woody as I do (he makes a memorable impression in TFOAS) added a great deal of depth to this reading experience. I wish I had had the same background for Margot. So if you really want to do this right, read the books in the order in which they were written (The Sixteen Pleasures, The Fall of a Sparrow, Philosophy Made Simple and finally The Italian Lover), OR, read the one book about Woody (TFOAS) first, then read the two books about Margot (T16P and PMS), then read The Italian Lover.
Hellenga is an enormously intelligent writer, and he creates complex memorable characters (and great women characters!) While my description above may make this book sound a bit light, it isn’t; it’s subtle and emotional. But this book also isn’t nearly as powerful as The Fall of a Sparrow. The Fall of a Sparrow is the story of the death of Woody’s daughter Carolyn in the Bologna train station bombing in 1980, and the subsequent disintegration of his marriage. It’s a complex analysis of fatherhood, faith, anger, forgiveness, politics, terrorism, death, and art, and it’s truly a brilliant book that will haunt me forever. While I’m happy to see that Woody has finally found some peace and happiness with Margot, The Italian Lover did not move me the way The Fall of a Sparrow did. So if you don’t want to embark upon a total Robert Hellenga trip, just read that one instead of this one. Though I plan to go backwards soon and read Margot and her father’s stories as well.
(Book 14, 2008)