A Year With William Trevor, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Venice, William Trevor

‘Cheating at Canasta’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 252 pages; 2008.

To kick off ‘A Year With William Trevor‘ — which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 BooksI randomly selected Cheating at Canasta, a collection of short stories that were first published in the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review and Tatler

It proved a perfect introduction to this year-long reading project, because the tales here, so masterfully written, showcase Trevor’s recurring themes: the complexity of family dynamics and relationships between men and women; the darker side of human nature; missed opportunities; and the ways in which the past has a habit of catching up with the future. Fear and shame dominate.

There are 12 stories in this volume, all roughly the same length, some set in Ireland, the country of Trevor’s birth, and some in England, the country where he spent most of his long life. But the title story, “Cheating at Canasta”, is set in Venice, specifically, Harry’s Bar, where a man, who is losing his wife to dementia, returns to the place they both adored and finds his time there disrupted by a younger couple quarrelling on a nearby table.

Young people caught up in events

When the hardcover edition of the book was published in 2007 it garnered mixed reviews, including a rather churlish one by Adam Mars-Jones in the Guardian (which I’m deliberately not linking to) which claimed Trevor couldn’t write about young people very well. I beg to differ.

In “Bravado”, a teenage girl witnesses a deadly assault on a boy she doesn’t know by her boyfriend who does it to impress her, earning himself an 11-year prison sentence in the process. Before her boyfriend is arrested, Aisling knows she should speak up but she’s understandably conflicted, caught between the excitement of her first romantic love and the responsibilities of the adult world she’s yet to fully join. What really holds her back, though, is the fact that she doesn’t want her father to know she went behind his back and kept seeing the boy he had warned her to stay away from.

It’s all resolved in the end, and Aisling does the right thing, but it leaves a long-lasting mark on her:

In a bleak cemetery, Aisling begged forgiveness of the dead for the falsity she had embraced when what there was had been too ugly to accept. Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching, there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been.

Petty jealousy and imagined hurts

In ‘The Children’, an 11-year-old girl (and only child), Connie, handles the death of her adored mother with aplomb — “You’ve been a strength, Connie,” her father tells her after the funeral — and quickly adjusts to life without her.

But when her father falls in love with a local woman a few years later and installs her and her two children, one of whom is Connie’s best friend, into the house, Connie’s behaviour changes. She spends more and more time alone, hiding on the roof, which she’s forbidden to climb, to read her late mother’s books.

And in one instant she turns on her soon-to-be step-sister with the cruel words: “This isn’t your house.”  Connie’s sense of betrayal, of a deeply held hurt, petty jealousy and an inability to accept changed circumstances is palpable.

Teenager in danger

And in ‘An Afternoon’, teenage Jasmin meets up with an older man she’s only ever met online. Her naivety is alarming as she spends an afternoon in his company, laps up his attention — “You’re pretty,” he said. “You’re pretty, Jasmin” — accepts the alcohol he offers her and agrees to go back to his house.

Again there was the ripple of excitement. She could feel it all over her body, a fluttering of pins and needles it almost felt like but she knew it wasn’t that. She loved being with him; she’d known she would.

She’s rescued at the last minute — Trevor doesn’t always let bad things happen to his characters — and the sense of relief, for this reader at least, is enormous but hard-earned.

The first is the best

The stand-out story of the collection, however, is the first one, “The Dressmaker’s Child”, which you can read online at the New Yorker, and which I had originally planned to read at the end of the year according to the schedule Cathy and I put together for A Year With William Trevor. (I didn’t know it was in this collection, so I’ll have to substitute that with something else and will let you know in due course.) 

In this story, Cahal, an Irish car mechanic, drives two Spanish tourists to see the “Weeping Virgin of Pouldearg”, a religious icon discredited by locals, and thinks nothing of charging them €50 for the privilege. On the way back to town, he runs over a child, the daughter of the local dressmaker, but does not stop to help. The Spaniards in the back seat are too busy kissing each other to notice the bump in the road.

What enfolds afterwards is a mixture of pure shame and fear and dread as Cathal wrestles with his conscience, even though the body is found not on the road, as expected, but at “the bottom of a fissure, half covered with shale, in the exhausted quarry half a mile from where she’d lived”. 

This strange development is quintessential William Trevor, a writer who likes to take seemingly ordinary characters and thrust them into unusual circumstances to see how things play out. Most of the stories in Cheating at Canasta contain moments of oddity that change the direction of the narrative. Each tale is an adventure. It’s like getting into a car and not knowing quite where you will end up…

I read this book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 Books. You are invited to join in using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. To find out more, including our monthly reading schedule, please click here.

This month Cathy has reviewed ‘The Old Boys’. I reviewed this same book in 2019. You can read my review here.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro, Publisher, Setting, short stories, USA, Venice

‘Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’ by Kazuo Ishiguro


Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2009.

The only Kazuo Ishiguro book I have read is Never Let Me Go, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005. While I found it a slightly frustrating experience, I was intrigued enough to add a few more of his books to my TBR, where they have steadfastly remained for about five years. When Ishiguro’s latest book, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, was chosen by my book group, I was delighted to have the opportunity to finally read more of his work.

As the name suggests, the book is a collection of short stories, each of which is themed around music and/or nightfall. The choice of the word nocturne is a clever one, given that it means a musical composition that is “appropriate to the night or evening”. Its other meaning — “an instrumental composition of a dreamy or pensive character” — would also be a good description of Ishiguro’s prose style, which is languid and dream-like throughout.

All five stories are lovely, entertaining reads, punctuated with great wit, and all are told by male protagonists not quite at home in the world or their own skin.

In Crooner, which is set in Venice, Janeck, from an unspecified Communist country, meets a childhood hero — an old American crooner, Tony Gardner. Janeck is a musician who plays guitar as part of an orchestra that performs for tourists in Piazza San Marco. He spots Tony in the crowd and introduces himself, and before he knows it he gets to meet Tony’s good-looking wife, Lindy, who appears brash and argumentative. From the outside it would seem their marriage is on the rocks, so when Tony enlists Janek to help him perform a moonlight serenade it seems like the right thing to do… but all is not as it seems.

In Come Rain or Come Shine, the narrator, 47-year-old Raymond, lives in Spain and is a bit of a drifter. He is invited to spend the weekend with his London-based friends, Emily and Charlie, with whom he went to university (Emily and Ray share a love of American show tunes). But this is not your average weekend away, because when he arrives, Charlie announces that his marriage to Emily is floundering and he wants Raymond to patch it up while Charlie goes to Frankfurt “on business”. The story is pretty much a farce, in which Raymond, out of his depth, tries to cover up the fact he stole a peek at Emily’s diary while she was at work. It is by far the funniest story in the collection.

In Malvern Hills, a young, struggling musician decamps to his sister’s house in the Malvern Hills for the summer. He hopes to spend some down time, working on his music, but finds himself having to help his sister, Maggie, and her husband, Geoff, run their busy cafe. Even though he’s not paying board or contributing to the household bills, he resents having to help Maggie in this way — and there are some hilarious moments when she politely calls him to task, but he never seems to get it. When he meets a middle-aged Austrian couple on holiday in the area, he befriends them — and is intrigued by the ways in which they present one face to the outer world and a different one to each other.

In Nocturnes, probably my favourite of the collection, a failed jazz musician, Bill, tries to revive his career by undergoing (illegal) plastic surgery. While recovering in the penthouse of a swanky hotel, he finds that his neighbour is Lindy Gardner, the ex-wife of crooner Tony Gardner (whom we met in the first story). Lindy is also recovering from surgery, but bored with lying in her room, she prowls the hotel at night, stealing food from the kitchen, and when she convinces Bill to join her one evening you know trouble is brewing…

In Cellists, the weakest story in the collection, a young Hungarian cellist, Tibor, accidentally finds himself a mentor and patron in the form of a mysterious older woman, whom watches him perform in a Venetian square. She introduces herself as Eloise McCormack, an American cellist, whom Tibor assumes is a distinguished musician. She criticises his performance, but wants to put him “on the correct path”, so offers to tutor him. He reluctantly accepts, but Miss McCormack isn’t all she’s cracked up to be…

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is not a particularly memorable read, probably because the “voice” in each story is too similar and there’s little to distinguish one character from the other. There are too many lone male musicians, older American woman and unhappy couples in it for a start. And theming the book around night and music seems like a marketing pitch that doesn’t quite come off.

But as a whole, it is a gentle, effortless read — I consumed the book in one sitting — and a perfectly pleasant way to while away a few hours.

Antal Szerb, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hungary, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, Venice

‘Journey by Moonlight’ by Antal Szerb


Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 240 pages; 2010. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix.

Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight has been on my wishlist since November 2007 when I spotted it in my local Waterstone’s. At the time I was looking for novels set in Venice, and this one seemed to fit the bill perfectly. So I was delighted when it was chosen as the July read for the book group to which I belong.

Sadly, Venice only plays a minor role in the story, much of which is set in other parts of Italy, including Perugia, Florence and Rome.

It deals with a Hungarian couple, Mihály and Erzsi, who get married following a one-year affair in which Erzsi leaves her husband. By all accounts they should be madly in love, yet the cracks are beginning to show when they go on their honeymoon to Venice. For a start, Mihály, keen to explore the city’s secret alleyways, stays out all night, without telling his new wife. Then, when he meets an old school friend, who is appallingly rude about Erzsi to her face, he gets lost in a world of nostalgia that only serves to strain their relationship further.

Things go from bad to worse when he gets on the wrong train, having disembarked for coffee en route from Florence to Rome, leaving Erzsi behind. I don’t think it is a plot spoiler to say the marriage is effectively over, but it is how both parties deal with the outfall that makes up the bulk of the novel. While most of the narrative follows Mihály’s quest to come to terms with his past, we do get fleeting glimpses of Erzsi’s new life.

Yet the book is frustrating, because the narrative is so uneven, and the (meagre) plot is littered with far too many coincidences to be believable.

But the novel’s strength lies in its intellectual ruminations on death, not just the physical ending of life, but on the loss of youth and how we grieve for past lives and experiences which can never be recaptured. For Mihály, a man from a privileged background, it is almost as if has never learnt to do anything or decide anything for himself; he’s been swept along by other people, including a dominant father, and he has never figured out where he truly belongs, other than in the past, where he felt “alive” amongst his childhood friends, a set of intriguing siblings, Éva and Tamás.

In fact, Mihály might be in his mid-30s but he seems alarmingly adolescent in his inability to grow up and get on with his life. And there are elements of his passivity, his ennui, which suggest to me that he might be suffering from undiagnosed depression.

But lest you think Journey by Moonlight suffers under the weight of its own pretensions, the novel has some comic, often absurd moments. And Szerb, who wrote this book in 1937, isn’t afraid to poke fun at his characters. Indeed, he seems to relish making some of them, such as János, who is accused of being a pick-pocket, a little bit dastardly.

While I cannot pretend to love this book as much as others — the reviews on the blurb from The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement make it sound like a masterpiece — it’s an interesting story about a lost soul trying to find his way in life.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, Venice, Vikram Seth

‘An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 496 pages; 2004.

An Equal Music is one of those big, beautiful books best appreciated by kicking off your shoes and curling up on the sofa to devour it in one or two longish sittings. It’s even better if it’s accompanied by a steady supply of coffee and cake, while the rain outside patters on the window. That’s not exactly how I read this book, but I could easily imagine doing so, because the story is so captivating and pleasurable.

Essentially it is an epic romance, set in London (and Venice), involving classical musicians. Now this is where I put up my hands and reveal I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to classical music, so some of the terminology and musical references were completely lost on me. But it certainly did not detract from the story, nor the all-encompassing, occasionally claustrophobic world presented here. I am sure anyone with a love of classical music would absolutely adore this novel.

The story, divided into eight parts, is told through the eyes of Michael, a 30-something violinist, who is the member of a quartet. He makes a little money on the side by teaching music, and has recently fallen into a relationship with one of his students. But it’s clear that Michael is nursing a great hurt. Ten years ago he left the woman he now realises was “the one” and has no idea what happened to her. Then, one day, while on a double-decker bus stuck in Oxford Street traffic, he finds himself eye to eye with his long lost love, Julia, who is sitting in the bus opposite.

It’s difficult to say much more without revealing crucial elements of the plot, so if this all sounds a bit vague, I’m sorry. What I can say is that Michael and Julia do, eventually, get back together, but the course of true love never runs smoothly, and there’s a lot of heartbreak and pain with which to contend — for both characters.

It’s pretty hard to fault the characterisation in this novel, although I have to admit that Michael, did, at times, feel slightly creepy and obsessive to me and there were occasions when I wondered how much of his narrative I could trust. Similarly, Julia’s motivations are often puzzling, and because we are never told her side of the story, there’s no way of knowing why she behaves the way that she does.

The secondary characters, of which there are quite a few, including Michael’s musical partners, the quartet’s agent, his neighbours and his father, all feel like living, breathing people. And the insights into life as a classical musician — rehearsing, negotiating a record deal, touring in Europe and performing on stage — are fascinating, especially the tensions and rivalries between quartet members.

But it’s the setting, too, which really sold this novel to me. How could I not like a book set in an area of London I know fairly well? Hyde Park in winter has never felt more atmospheric to me than Vikram Seth’s evocative descriptions of it. And the parts set in Venice had me itching to revist the watery city I love so much.

An Equal Music was first published in 1999. It’s a hugely passionate novel about passion — passion for others, passion for music, but, most of all, passion for life.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Robert Dessaix, Setting, Venice

‘Night Letters’ by Robert Dessaix


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 276 pages; 1999.

Night Letters was published in Australia to critical acclaim in 1996.

Picking it up, it’s hard to work out if it is a fictional story or a real-life travel memoir. This confusion is aided by its subtitle — A Journey Through Switzerland and Italy — and the note which claims it is “edited and annotated by Igor Miazmov”. But for those who aren’t quite sure, this is a novel and Miazmov is none other than Dessaix under another name. (Quite hilarious, then, to see that Amazon.co.uk lists Miazmov as if he is a real editor.)

The book comprises a series of 20 letters written on consecutive nights by an Australian man staying in a Venice hotel. The man, who is named Robert, has been diagnosed with an incurable illness and while the disease is never named one gets the impression that it is HIV.

These letters, which are not addressed to anyone in particular (but are effectively you, the reader), are filled with Robert’s wide-ranging thoughts on travel, love, religion and mortality. But the common theme, which threads in and out of the often meandering narrative, is man’s search for paradise and whether, in fact, it exists. This is underpinned by references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which Robert is reading out of sequence, so that when he finishes Paradise he feels “oddly becalmed […] if that didn’t bring you to a point of absolute stillness, nothing would”.

As Robert narrates his often mundane, sometimes frustrating and occasionally menacing travels through Locarno, Vicenza and Padua, he offers fascinating glimpses of the people and places he encounters along the way.

In Locarno he befriends an English woman wearing a mysterious amulet — “a hugely endowed male copulating with a large-limbed female, all in exquisitely fine detail, every bead in the bracelets, every toe picked out” — who spends days telling him about the history of the tiny gold brooch she wears. And in Venice he meets another hotel resident, a German professor, with whom he shares many discourses on history and philosophy, mainly on how the famous Venetian residents Cassanova and Marco Polo represented “completely different ways of travelling — and therefore of living out your life”.

I have to admit that Night Letters initially failed to win me over. I actually considered abandoning it. But I’m glad I persevered, because once I understood this was a novel about storytelling — there are references to famous novelists throughout, including Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Salman Rushdie — I truly enjoyed it. There are stories within stories, and once you realise that these all combine weight to Robert’s search for meaning, you wonder why you didn’t “get” this much earlier.

What I loved most about this book — aside from the gorgeously authentic descriptions of modern Venice and the very funny footnotes by “Igor Miazmov” — are the insights into human nature and what it is to truly live. There are little gems dotted on every page — for example, Robert realises that the journey of life is not about getting to the destination, which is effectively death, but in experiencing each moment as fully as one can, and I love this passage, which seems so eloquent and true to me:

Journeying is, after all, so fundamental to the way we humans think of ourselves and assign our lives a meaning. Every second book you read is about some kind of journey, really, isn’t it? And we constantly talk about paths in life — ways, roads, progress, stages and so on — all travel metaphors, when you think about it.

In fact, I had to do everything within my power not to underline about 90 per cent of the sentences in this book, because so many of them resonated with me.

Night Letters is an incredibly subtle novel, but it’s a wise one too. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I loved its intelligence, its humanity and its big-picture look at life, so much so that when I got to the last page I immediately wanted to turn to the front to read it all over again — and that doesn’t happen very often. And do read it if, like me, you have a penchant for anything set in Venice — Dessaix captures the city so perfectly you’ll be rushing to book your air flights!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jane Turner Rylands, Setting, short stories, Venice

‘Venetian Stories’ by Jane Turner Rylands


Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 304 pages; 2004.

I am not a great fan of the short story, but I made an exception for this collection, because of its setting. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for Venice, so, when I found Jane Turner Rylands’ Venetian Stories in a local charity shop I snapped it up, took it home and then spent the next six months reading it very, very slowly.

All the stories — there are 12 in total and each is about 20 pages long — are set in the watery city. They are told from the perspective of the residents, whether new or old, Italian or foreign, rich or poor. Some are even interlinked, but this is done in such a subtle manner that it’s not immediately obvious and, to be honest, I wouldn’t have even picked this up if it wasn’t for the blurb telling me this was the case.

In fact, subtle is the key word here, as the entire collection seems to lack any great impact. There’s no “wow” factor in these stories, but they are pleasing and effortless to read, if slightly fey in places. They supposedly provide an insight into real Venetian lives, but I have my doubts because many of the people portrayed here are downright snobs, corrupt or stupid.

There’s also a decidedly American feel to everything, which is no great surprise given the author is an expat American. But what concerned me most was the condescending prose style adopted by Turner Rylands; there’s no greater turn off than being talked down to, as if I could not possibly be as well travelled or as well connected  as the author.

In my humble opinion, Venetian Stories is not a great collection and has done nothing to make me reassess my usual distaste for the short story, but if you love Venice and consider yourself an armchair traveller you just might enjoy it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, Michelle Lovric, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Venice

‘Venice: Tales of the City’ edited by Michelle Lovric


Fiction & non-fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 448 pages; 2003.

Venice is one of those wonderfully intriguing cities that has inspired artists and writers alike for centuries. London-based author Michelle Lovric is no exception. She has penned several novels set in the watery Italian city, including Carnevale and The Floating Book, but this time around she leaves the writing to others and selects some of her favourite poetry, fiction pieces and non-fiction extracts and brings them together in this varied collection.

“In this anthology,” she writes, “the voices of today’s Venetians mingle with those of their ancestors, just as they still do on the streets of the city”. And she is right: some of the writings included here date back centuries (several have been translated in English here for the first time) and others were written as recently as the late Twentieth Century.

Divided into 14 neat sections (under very specific themes), including “The Watery City” (which
looks at how the mythical town was built), “City of Venetians” (which looks at the character of the Venetians) and “City of Flavours” (which looks at Venetian cuisine), Lovric does a brilliant job of bringing together a diverse collection of voices each of whom has something interesting to say about Venice whether fictionalised or rooted in reality. Everyone from Hans Christian Andersen to Ezra Pound is featured — and they are all introduced in Lovric’s charming and easy-to-read style. In fact, I found her biographies of each writer more interesting than their respective writings, which is a shame given that wasn’t the purpose of reading this book.

As much as I love Venice, I found this collection a little too broad and lacking depth. I think it might have been a more enjoyable book if there were fewer writers and if the featured extracts were longer — some here were little longer than a page so I never really got a chance to get a “handle” on the writing. Still, if you’re a Venice buff and want something you can dip in and out of (instead of reading it cover to cover as I did) this book will be a worthy one to add to your collection. And it will act as a useful “taster”, either for many of the featured writers or Venice herself.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, Publisher, Salley Vickers, Setting, Venice

‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’ by Salley Vickers


Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 342 pages; 2000.

Set in contemporary Venice but with a decidedly old-fashioned ring to the writing style, Miss Garnet’s Angel is one of the most delightful books I’ve ever read.

In this startling original debut novel by Salley Vickers we meet a just-retired school teacher who has lived a fairly staid and sedate life, a natural introvert who lacks self-confidence despite her fierce independence.

When her housemate of 30 years dies, Miss Garnet finds herself truly alone. When she takes an extended six-month trip to Venice, Italy, to come to terms with her loss little does she realise the changes — spiritually, emotionally and mentally — that she is about to undergo.

In alternate chapters, Vickers also tells the ancient story of Tobias — a man who embarks on a treacherous journey unaware that he is accompanied by the Archangel Raphael — which mirrors Miss Garnet’s voyage of discovery. While I sometimes felt this interrupted the flow of the main narrative I began to understand how it enriched and illuminated what was happening to Miss Garnet. Quite a clever device, really.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, although it took me a little while to get used to the prose style which seemed slightly stilted and stuffy. But once I was immersed in the wonderful world of Venice and got to know Miss Garnet and the friends she makes along the way I truly did not want this book to end.

The beauty of the story is not so much the pitch-perfect descriptions of Venice’s ruined grandeur and her wonderfully evocative past, but in the “growth” of Miss Garnet who goes through some kind of slow metamorphosis from a shy, retiring spinster who is cut off from her emotions to an assured woman not afraid to experience life, even if that means she might be exposed to pain and heartbreak in the process. As her “frozen” personality begins to thaw, you very much warm to this delightful character.

A wonderfully warm, inspirational book, this is sure to become a contemporary classic.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Jan Morris, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Venice

‘Venice’ by Jan Morris


Non fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 336 pages; 1993.

I am not a great fan of travelogues or travel memoirs, because I often think they don’t really make sense, or resonate strongly enough, unless you have been to the places depicted. For instance, it’s all well and good to read a travel tome about Australia and how terrible the flies are in the desert, but until you’ve actually experienced flies swarming around you and crawling into every face crevice it really doesn’t mean anything — you think you know but you really have no idea!

I decided to read Venice in preparation for a week-long stay in the Italian city. I had been to Venice several years ago, so felt I knew a bit about the city and its famous landmarks, which is why I wasn’t so bothered about reading this memoir. I’d done the homework already, so to speak.

Broken into three sections — The People, The City, The Lagoon — Venice is not a chronological history of the city but a meandering look at its past, present and future. Nor is it a guidebook, though it does contain a mine of information about what to see and where to go.

I think The Times probably described it best when they said it was “a classic love letter to Italy’s most iconic city”, because it is, indeed, a beautiful missive dripping with exquisite descriptions. I found it an enormously engaging and evocative read by an accomplished writer who really knows how to string a simile or two together.

Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.


There are palaces to see everywhere, and precious churches, and bridges, and pictures by the thousand, and all the criss-cross pattern of antiquity that is picturesque Venice, mocked by the materialists, sentimentalised by the Romantics, but still by any standards an astonishing phenomenon, as fruity as plum pudding, as tart as the brand that flames about its holly.

In fact the writing throughout this superb book is sublime (much like Venice itself) and I would quote entire chapters here, except it’s probably better if you just took my word for it and got hold of a copy of Venice for yourself.

It’s a beautifully written and researched book, jam-packed with anecdotes and all kinds of historical fact. Whether you have been to Venice or not, I’m sure once you have read Jan Morris’s delightful memoir you will be clammering to book your flights!

Author, Ballentine, Book review, Marlena de Blasi, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Venice

‘A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance’ by Marlena de Blasi


Nonfiction – paperback; Ballentine Books; 272 pages; 2002.

I have just discovered that the medication I am currently taking for a chest infection is the same medication given to people with Anthrax, so this might partly explain the snarky review which is to follow. Then again it might not.

A Thousand Days in Venice is one of those lovely-looking personal travel memoirs that promises everything and delivers not very much at all.

There’s no doubt that it is well written: the prose is clear, lucid and free from too much ‘waffle’ and de Blasi definitely knows how to write about food in a wonderfully evocative way. But the story — how can I say this without sounding too mean? — is woefully sappy and overly sentimental, which is fine if you like those things, but terrible if you don’t.

Essentially it’s about de Blasi’s whirlwind ‘romance’ with an Italian whom she met on a work-related trip to Venice. This man had spied her before on a previous trip, had fallen in love with her profile, and when he spotted her again on her second trip he kept following her around like a lovelorn puppy. Apparantly de Blasi has never heard of the term ‘stalker’ before.

Strangely enough, when alarm bells should have been ringing, de Blasi, a middle-aged American with a successful career and two grown-up children of her own, decides to give up her entire life for this man — a banker — she barely knows. The two of them don’t even share a common language and de Blasi hasn’t even seen Fernando’s house before she’s already sold hers and is winging her way to Venice to be with him.

Of course, things don’t pan out as de Blasi had hoped (probably because the woman doesn’t seem to have a realistic bone in her body) and there are ructions in the relationship from woe to go. But somehow the marriage survives even when Fernando throws in his job because he wants to leave Venice to live elsewhere!

All in all, a fairly cloying memoir that I really only persevered with because I enjoyed the references to particular places in Venice that I’ve seen or visited. It’s a pretty safe bet that I won’t be tracking down her second volume — A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure — unless my Anthrax medication turns me decidedly loopy!