As wind, rain, fog and sleet set miserably in, our thoughts might turn to summer climes. Authors and publishers have anticipated that longing. This time of year reliably produces a stock of sun and fun books, stories set in exotic locales, featuring glamorous clothes and expensive meals, back-lit with a show of nostalgia for homes and lovers left behind somewhere.
In the enforced absence of luxury yachts (at least those impounded from oligarchs), intrepid journeys across deserts (too hot and risky) or yet another discovery of China (shuttered), writers might return to more congenial, cosier settings.
Rome and Venice would be placed near the top of any such list. London is too twee, Berlin too incorrigibly edgy, Istanbul too aggressively foreign. By contrast, those two Italian cities are places you keep coming back to "until they slam the door in your face".
Francesca Giacco's artist heroine, Emilia, arrives in Rome without her "past-tense lover", but with a back-story about entanglement with that wannabe writer which interrupts too much of the narrative. Her initial judgments of Rome are riddled with cliches. Everything is operatic, Roman cooking is based on offal, and "Rome doesn't know what to do with a woman alone".
As a woman alone, Emilia does not quite know what to do with herself either. She swelters ("the sun is relentless, the heat inescapable"), kibbitzes, relishes "a wilder, freer language", is almost knocked over by a Vespa, and meets a bloke. Emilia's first conversation with said bloke - weighted, teasing, tentative - contains the best writing in Giacco's novel.
Instead of six days, Margaret Cameron offers readers a month's worth of learning about Venice. A course of novels by Donna Leon, now wonderfully recovered from a writing slump, would have been cheaper and simpler. Cameron, though, resolves to shift herself, "take-no-risks-and-blaze-no-trails sort of person", from Perth to the Serenissima. Cameron lives in Western Australia and used to spend two months each year in Venice; this book describes the early stages of that infatuation.
Cameron's memoir begins with George Clooney's wedding, when "the only toast I cared about was spread with marmalade". Like Emilia in Rome, Cameron fastidiously selects an apartment ("Baroque on a budget"), installing herself in the Dorsoduro district to penetrate "the hidden, private city, the Venice of the Venetians".
Cameron's story is leisurely, with historical asides, extended encounters with strangers, records of her own thoughts, and memories of food and drink, both good and bad. Giacco's repertoire is similar, but she takes advantage of her fiction license.
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