Uncomfortable feeling — I have not been fair to this book. Sometimes I forget that, as a reader, you have to bring something to the enterprise: sustained effort, and the ability to keep faith with the author’s intentions. Many books — lots of what I read, anyway — can just be gulped down as diversion, but Elizabeth Spencer deserved better of me than being read in chopped-up chunks on a series of airplanes.
That being said, I may not be exactly her ideal audience anyway. This volume unites two novellas and seven stories of variable length. What they all have in common is Italian settings. (“The Light in the Piazza,” of course, is the source for the very successful musical of the same title.) I don’t read a lot of short fiction. I’m not even sure I know how to appreciate it. Some of Spencer’s stories go by so quickly that they seem little more than a gesture. A kiss caught on a stairway, a letter thrust down into a pot of white azaleas, a wisteria blossom drifting into a drink; maybe you are supposed to pause there and let Spencer’s images and characters expand in your imagination?
I was least comfortable with the long novella “Knights and Dragons,” set largely during a Roman winter. Its shifting point of view and time frame are effectively disorienting; the story concerns the volatile relationships among a set of expatriates. The thread between America and Rome is stretched thin, almost to rupture. Martha Ingram, teetering on the edge of madness, evades communications from her ex-husband, though she hears rumors about his death. Her boss, diplomat George Hartwell, has been abroad so long that he wears pointy Italian shoes. His affection for Martha, especially when his wife goes away, takes on a neurotic flavor. This alienation from “home” brings an untethered quality to relationships. The Introduction says that Elizabeth Spencer “disclaimed any real fondness for James and denied his influence.” Really?
The final tale is called “The Cousins” and it seemed the most effective. A group of Southern cousins travels to Europe one summer. The narrator, Ella Mason, is looking back from late middle age, and she deftly depicts the affectionate but unsettled familial and romantic alliances within the group. The story cuts back and forth between the American scenes and the European. The latter includes a brilliant episode at the casino in Monte Carlo, when one of the cousins has an adventure at the roulette table. What could be more un-American than a fortune won or lost on the behavior of a little black ball? Yet the scene I remember best presents cousins lounging on a porch after supper: “‘A warm night and the streetlight filtering in patterns through the trees and shrubs and a smell of honeysuckle… And steps on the walk. They stopped, then they walked again, and Ben got up … and unlatched the screen. If you didn’t latch the screen it wouldn’t shut.'” This speech is delivered by the cousin who stayed in Florence, whom the family consider “lost.” To whom Ella Mason is in some sense an ambassador, in the Jamesian sense.