Lead Review PLUS author chat
- Book: Siracusa
- Location: Rome, Syracuse
- Author: Delia Ephron
It was the cover that did it. I might otherwise not have been drawn to this searing narrative of painful family relationships set both in Rome and Siracusa, or Syracuse, as most English speakers know this little town, set on the south eastern coast of Sicily.This is the interwoven story of two couples, Michael and Lizzie, and Taylor and Finn, accompanied by the latter’s daughter Snow – you can already guess that her name is a deliberate (unusual as it is) choice for a 10 year old, whiter than white, not to be confused with cocaine, untainted, and above all to be protected under the watchful eye of her mother. The child suffers from Extreme Shyness Disorder, which doesn’t actually seem to exist per se, although shyness is an integral part of Avoidant Personality Disorder. She very much has her own ways of being which are at times controlling and peculiar.
The nature/nurture discussion is certainly a point of debate, as her mother is fused with her daughter, they eat the same ice cream, choose the same food and sleep in the same hotel bed on their travels. Claustrophobia is the overarching theme of their relationship, it is cloying control exerted in the name of protection.
The adults around Snow start straying into the inappropriate – where is their boundary-keeping, one wonders – their enmeshed stories coming to the fore, choosing subject matters around the dinner table that would cause consternation to an average adult when a child is present; but this is largely all about them, they are a pretty self serving bunch.
Here’s the thing, however, these people have psyches and personalities that are almost interchangeable. Each chapter is from the viewpoint of one member of the adult party and early on I had to keep flipping back and forth to ascertain whose voice was shedding light on the unfolding dynamics. They blended at the start, keeping their individual public personas well honed in Rome. But as they transfer to Sicily it seemed to give permission for their innate selves to seep out and flourish, and they are for the most part pretty loathsome. Rome is solid and sleek and so are they for the most part. On to Syracuse, which is depicted as incredibly run down, crumbling and tacky, “in a perpetual state of disintegration…” and thus it is that their metamorphosis takes place in line with the disintegrating setting as described.
Almost from the outset, we know that things are not going to end well, as there are clear references to life post-Siracusa. You will need to read the book to find out what the catalyst was that made their trip go truly pear-shaped.
Snow seems to be a sweet child, and yet… as she deliberately faints in front of the Caravaggio in Santa Lucia alla Badia the painting that is the star attraction in the city, the reader becomes acutely aware that this child has a sharp, perhaps vituperative eye on the world, her fluttering insouciance – just like the adults – is perhaps a well honed front.
This is maybe a novel not to enjoy so much but to read and ponder. The writing has a style that to my eyes is very American – there is an artistic disjointedness that I have come across in other books written by American authors. But it flows, it has panache and I am still thinking about the book even now. I guess it is as much about what one is used to, the traditions of one’s culture and as the author amusingly quips about culture – the BBC backdrops are dreary and English news commentators don’t dress with much style”. Every culture sees the world through a unique lens….
The locations are evocatively drawn and as a reader I certainly felt I was there. As they visited San Crispino for ice cream (well worth a visit when you are in Rome) I could really visualise them choosing their flavours. And now I have a top tip from the characters when I visit Syracuse as I shall have to pop into Voglia Matta (which gets a good star rating on TripAdvisor). Do I agree, though, with the sentiments of one character: How sad that Rome, and Paris too, are no longer evolving, pulsing entities, but preserved as if in aspic satisfy the fantasies of tourists? (Discuss!)
I was totally delighted to see that character Lizzie followed the TripFiction ethos and chose to read a murder mystery To Each His Own by by Leonard Sciascia set in the place to which she was travelling, a book that… delves into the psychology and culture of Sicily, all wrapped in a good crime mystery. Perfetto!
Overall, an excellent read.
Over to Delia who has kindly agreed to answer our questions:
TF: You are clearly a keen observer of human dynamics and couple relationships, which is wonderfully evident in this book and also your films. Dynamics with a twist. How do you choose the ‘extra dimension’, as it were – in the book it is mainly a 10 year old child, in You’ve Got Mail it was the early days of internet dating?
DE: This is a suspenseful novel, dark and wicked, different from anything I’ve written. I knew my novel Siracusa would be about marriage and about traveling – how the isolation of travel could cause marriages to unravel, but when I started writing I didn’t realize that Snow, a ten-year-old girl, would be at the heart of it. It was an unconscious decision. So much of writing fiction is trusting your unconscious. I put her in and she just started to take over.
TF: It is quite a struggle to like the characters in this novel, engaging though they certainly are. Do you blend the character traits at the outset or do they evolve as the story progresses?
DE: I wanted my characters to be absolutely real, that you would be intrigued and deeply involved with them, wonder about what was coming and what they thought and what they would do next, but never that you would necessarily like them. Of course I want you to be compelled by them. People keep writing to me, “I couldn’t put it down,” but also, “I thought I liked Finn but then I didn’t like Finn” or “I really cared about Lizzie but then I didn’t but then I thought, Do I?” Yes. Intense engagement. That’s what I’m going for.
TF: Locale is really evocative in the book. The city of Rome is the backdrop for the characters keeping their psyches (more or less) in check, but it all falls apart when the group arrives in run-down Syracuse. It must have been interesting to research the locations? How did you go about that?
DE: I was first there around 2007. The old section is entirely stone. The Romans cut down the trees in 212 BC and never planted anymore. The first day I thought, this is the most magical place I’ve ever been. The second day I thought, If I don’t get out of here, I’ll go mad.
I knew it was the perfect place for couples to unravel. It’s powerful. I returned several times while I was writing and made wonderful friends there who helped me. It was great because I had to do all the things my characters do. I traveled as them. Lizzie loves the food markets, and there is a divine one in Siracusa. Finn cruises dive bars so I found myself at 2 a.m. in a wild place with Karaoke blaring. Michael, is having an affair. He looks for out of the way places so I hunted out espresso bars where he could be alone and spike his coffee with scotch. Taylor loves culture. I went to the Caravaggio and the Greek ruins, When I don’t research and simply vacation, all I do is walk and eat. This was more intriguing.
TF: What are your top tips when visiting Rome and Syracuse?
DE: Oh gosh, that’s hard. Walking through the old section of Siracusa is magical. The main square Piazza Duomo is beautiful and so is the ancient church that dominates the square. But anyone who goes there will do that. Go to the food market – that’s my top tip. It’s humble and inviting – vats of pistachios and charred peppers and a million varieties of oranges. In Rome, I loved the Protestant Cemetery where the romantic poets are buried. But anything you do in Italy is fantastic.
TF: The ice cream parlours San Crispino (Rome) and Voglia Matta (Syracuse) feature in the novel. I have to ask you this question: What are your favourite ice cream flavours?
DE: Pistachio and coconut.
TF: The portrait of Syracuse in the book is a rather depressing one. I note at the back of your novel in Acknowledgements that you received the support/insight of locals in Syracuse. How do they respond to the way your characters experience the city? What was your personal experience of the city?
DE: I don’t think Siracusa/Syracuse is depressing. It’s a place that one minute it’s beautiful, and the next it’s oppressive. It’s a powerful locale – the best possible thing for a novel — and it sends these couples spinning but only because they are heading there to begin with. Everyone one I know from Siracusa who has read the novel has loved it, I’m happy to say.
TF: What is next for you in terms of travel and writing?
DE: I’m going to visit friends in the south of France at the end of September. Looking forward to that. Supposedly all play and no work. But then you never know.
Thank you to Delia for answering our questions.