Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Feasts of Love

I've been in a particularly sentimental mood lately. Perhaps I needed a break from all the political upheaval and anger that's always brewing inside me. For whatever reason, I was so ready for the movie last week, The Feast of Love. I remembered how much the book by Charles Baxter had delighted me but I couldn't have told you the plot if my life depended on it. Ah fickle memory. I only knew that I put it down with a feeling of deep satisfaction and that sense one gets now and then that all's right with the world.
I had the same sensation (and I believe that Andrea did too) when we sat at the end of the movie, credits rolling, unwilling to get up and plunge right back into the real world. Baxter's book, you see, is a celebration of love in all its manifestations. It doesn't make judgments, it acknowledges hurt, loss, the pain of a "wrong" decision, a misplacement of trust, but it also espouses a philosophy that has kept me on an even keel in the past, which is that all of our choices, at least when it comes to love, are better than not giving it at all. There's no room for bitterness in the human heart.

That same theme is evident in all the writing of Robert Hellenga, another favorite of mine. I just burned through The Italian Lover in record time, at least for me. This book is a follow-up to Hellenga's The Sixteen Pleasures, the story of Margot Harrington, then an American college student, a "mud angel," who went to Florence to restore books after the terrible flooding of the Arno in the 1960's; a flood that decimated so many of the great works of art which had been displayed or housed in the churches and convents of this wonderful Renaissance city. Margot, Sandro, her much older Italian lover, and the city of Florence were equally compelling characters in the earlier book and Hellenga's cadre of fans were more than ready for "the rest of the story."

Margot, twenty-five years later, is a renowned book conservator whose life story is being made into a movie, The Italian Lover, by Esther Klein, a tough-talking, recently divorced producer. Esther is hell-bent on proving herself to the Hollywood power brokers who control the purse strings and to her ex-husband, the love of her life, who has left her for a twenty-something. She hires Miranda, a young insecure ingenue, to star alongside the much more sophisticated Italian actor Zanni, and brings in director Michael, who is quietly dying from prostate cancer. With him is his wife of many years, Beryl, an accomplished woman used to being able fix anything. As this menagerie decends upon Florence, filming in the convents, eating at the nearby restaurants and hiring local grips and cameramen, readers realize that Margot is the only one who doesn't understand that her dramatic screenplay is about to be turned into a romantic comedy.

There's no doubt that Hellenga is in love with Italy. He writes of each piazza and alleyway so that we can smell the garlic emmanating from the doorways. Even if you've never been there yourself, you can perfectly visualize the dogs romping outside Margot's apartment in the Piazza Santa Croce. But more than this, Hellenga loves his characters. Each quirky, self-absorbed, bright, caring person in Hellenga's books is someone you already know or truly want to know. They make decisions about their relationships that we may not understand but, as with Charles Baxter, there are no judgments put forth, no punishment for mistakes, just human beings trying to love one another as best they can. Finishing this book I felt the same deep satisfaction that I got from The Feast of Love. I sighed audibly.

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