Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Stopover in Venice

Ahhh - don't I wish. I'm still in Italy in my mind for some reason, not the least of which must be that there's been so much fun stuff written lately that takes place there. I suppose because it's bound to get published just on the basis of readers' ongoing love affair with Italy.

Kathryn Walker is an author I had not heard of and I'm guessing that this is her first novel but not her first brush with fame. She has an impressive background in theatre and the arts (artist in residence at Harvard) which might explain why this light read got a bit bogged down in art history about half to three quarters of the way through. Not enough to put me off but I confess I was reduced to skimming. It was the characters more than the art that I was interested in.

The premise is a bit contrived but if you go with it you won't be disappointed. Basically Nel is married to an egotistical playboy that she apparently latched onto on the rebound after the death of her real love. On tour in Europe with Antony's group, Nel simply gets fed up with the hangers on and asks the bus to drop her off. Just like that she sets herself up at the Gritti Palace in Venice, conveniently with hubby's credit card, and decides to spend more than one night in each city, to relax and try to find out what she wants to do with her life. It's a story that's been told a trillion times yet the quality of the writing sets this story apart.

Through the intervention of a dog - read on - Nel meets Lucy, an older woman who lives alone - but not lonely - in her palazzo where a young art restorer, Matteo, is working on uncovering a glorious fresco of unknown origin that's been plastered over for hundreds of years. Nel and Lucy have an affinity for eachother that results in Lucy's inviting Nel to move into the palazzo to help Matteo research the history of the home, which was at one time a convent, and possibly find the long lost artist responsible for the beautiful art work. OK, I needed a break from all that heavy reading I do and this filled the bill.

Painting the kitchen today gave me the opportunity to finish a more serious book, written by Janice Lee and exquisitely read by Orlagh Cassidy. The Piano Teacher, amazingly sophisticated for a debut novel (what is it with these Harvard gals?), is historical fiction at its finest. The setting is Hong Kong immediately prior to and throughout World War II, an exotic, mysterious city where the perfect surface manners used by both the Brits and the Chinese belie the subtle, underlying distrust between the users and the used.

This is a love story too, complicated by the times, the prejudices and the snobbery of the Brits in Hong Kong as one of their own eligible bachelors falls for a Eurasian woman of dubious reputation. When the Japanese invade, everyone scrambles to be on the side of the winners and those without connections are sent to a prisoner of war camp at Stanley Prison. Will, our bachelor, must go, but Trudy, his lover, chooses to stay on the outside working for a Japanese official who can obtain food and medicine for her to smuggle into the camp.

Ten years later a naive young Brit, Claire Pendleton, comes to Hong Kong with her husband Martin. To fill her time while Martin is working she begins giving piano lessons to Locket Chen, the daughter of a well established Hong Kong family. At the Chen's home she meets their driver, Will Truesdale. and through their burgeoning relationship Ms. Lee provides readers with a close up view of the "collateral damage" of war, the cruelty of the oppressor, and the choices human beings will make to survive. A truly beautiful book and a good discussion group suggestion.

Well, the kitchen is done, the rain has blown over. Hmmmm should I go for a bike ride or open a bottle of wine and relax in front of the tv?

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