Divorced, alone, and unexpectedly unemployed, Sylvia Landsman flees to Italy, where she meets Henry, a wistful, married, middle-aged expatriate. Taking off on a grand tour of Europe bankrolled with his wife's money, Henry and Sylvia follow a circuitous route around the continent - as Sylvia entertains Henry with stories of her peculiar family and her damaged friends, of dead ducks and Alma Mahler. Her narrative is a tapestry of remembrances and regrets... and her secret shame: a small, cowardly sin of omission. Yet when the opportunity arises for Sylvia and Henry to do something small but brave, the refrain "if only" returns to haunt her, leaving Sylvia with one more story of love lived and lost.
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You know how a new, soon-to-be favorite song grows on you after the first time you hear it? That's just like this book. Except that you move through the first "I don't know about this, but there is something I like in there" straight to the "I love this and I need to hear it again!" in the first listen. Of course this observation comes from someone who lived on an island in the summer and drove around barefoot in a car, depending solely on an AM radio for her listening pleasure. Before there were CDs or iPods, or hell, before there were cassettes and even before there was FM radio. And so the hearing of the new favorite song would be left to fate, "the universe", serendipity - whatever floats your boat and all that.
In the beginning, I was more than a little annoyed by the author's seemingly tedious peregrinations, both literary and actual, and her long, attenuated run-on sentences, thinking "ok this is fine for an MFA thesis, very inventive and lyrical, but ...seriously?", and vowed to give this book no more than a "2". I had that exact same feeling I'd get with a traveling companion I was riding with chose to follow a detour and my patience would give out. But I knew that no writer worthy of her craft would think that a simple Cinderella story would ever be enough. And so, the story of Sylvia and Henry uses mainly backstory to sustain itself, and I found this initially to be disturbing, hell, even sadistic, and why is this Binnie Kirshenbaum making me suffer so much for my prize at the end? But anyway I listened through all of the backstory and the "front story" and came to appreciate the technique of combining past with present, and to admire, even envy, the skill with which the two stories are combined.
Because I knew there was going to be that prize at the end and I knew that Cinerella's glass slipper would shatter in some way, and that would be the end of that. By a bit of foreshadowing, the author establishes a hint of the ending, just enough to keep you going like an addict jonesing for a fix and getting high just knowing the stuff is there. Or at least coming soon. anyway.
This is a great read, and it deals with so many issues, past and present, which in the hands of a lesser talent would be rendered trite, conventional, and also very difficult to follow. But Sylvia's story wanders happily along, seamlessly weaving stories within stories, as the narrative circles around for yet another loop, as the thoroughly relatable characters appear and disappear just at the right time.