304 pp. hardback, $26
Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner
There’s no obvious hero in Delia Ephron’s lacerating new novel. But when it comes to villains, take your pick. Her brittle quartet of central characters – two couples – are a strikingly flawed bunch, each appalling in a different way. Fading-star author Michael, married to over-loyal Lizzie, is an egomaniac suspended on a sea of falsehood, while Taylor, wife of heedless Finn, is dependent on and needy of her daughter Snow to a degree that terrifies. Put these two toxic North American households together on a holiday to Italy, first Rome then Sicily, and what do you get? Self-indulgence, lies, obsession, adultery, willful blindness – and all that is before you stir in one extra ingredient, Michael’s mistress Kath.
Hell is undoubtedly other people in this stifling group which may drink in the sights and sounds, the prosecco, pasta and gelato, and pay homage to the history of the settings, but is in fact operating in a sealed bubble. Traveling within a series of closed and self-sustaining mind-sets, each one has been shaped by experience, privilege and cultural custom and sees no immediate need to change his or her dubious way.
The novel is narrated in turn by the four principals as the plot bowls towards a late and rather heavily-signaled act that will come to haunt some but not all of the protagonists. Is there suspense? Just a bit. How about a sense of justice, learning, change? Not so much. Even after events blow up, after the dust settles behaviors resume their toxic patterns.
This novel, a well-crafted machine redolent of its author’s experience (she has written books, films, journalism and more) delivers horrible fascination alongside recognizable outcomes. As bitter and grown-up as a Negroni, Ephron’s story is perfect summer reading for a jaded urban readership, escapism with an Old European edge. The humor is sophisticated and brittle, the sex urgent, and the literary and classical references deliver a self-sustaining sense of depth. Ironic, entertaining and just a little bit depressing, this is one to enjoy and leave on the hotel bookshelf, for the next sceptical spouse to discover.