Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: SIRACUSA

Title: Siracusa
Author: Delia Ephron
Publisher: Blue Rider Press
Pages: 304

Siracusa, Syracuse in Italian, is about the momentous, life- and marriage-threatening events that take place in the lives of two couples, Lizzie and Michael Shapner, and Finn and Taylor Dolan, while they are on a holiday there. The Dolans are accompanied by their 10-year-old daughter Snow.

From the beginning, Taylor believes that the trip is a conspiracy between Lizzie and Finn to be together. She also believes that travel changes one’s perspective. In this novel, we see how it changes relationships and marriages.

It soon becomes clear that Michael is drifting apart from Lizzie, though it was Lizzie who once had an affair with Finn, long before either of them got married. Michael has an affair with Kathy, a waitress at a restaurant he and Lizzie often frequent. He does not have the guts to take a decision and end the ambivalence in this mind. Instead he hopes that Lizzie will tumble into bed with Finn, giving him the excuse he needs to walk out of the marriage.

Meanwhile, Michael cultivates a patronizing friendship with Snow, as a means of showing Finn up. Finn has never been allowed into the closeness of Taylor and her daughter. None of the adults, other than Taylor, think much of Snow other than thinking of her as a child, and even Taylor sees her as dependent, incapable of making her own decisions, needing to be watched over all the time. 

But Snow is not a child. And she’s watching the ways of the adults and learning. When Michael makes Snow feel important, she comes into her own, asserting herself like never before.

Siracusa, a town on the coast of Sicily, is where everything unravels. Kath shows up, throwing Michael’s life off-kilter, insisting that he break up with Lizzie, getting him to buy her a ring worth 35000 euros. Michael can’t bring himself to break up in a foreign land, but he does cavort around with Kath, while Lizzie, blissfully unaware, is out sightseeing. Only Finn, having seen Michael with Kath, realizes what is going on.

And then Kath turns into a nightmare, going rogue. She stalks him, having used his flyer miles to get air tickets and his credit card details to get a room in the same hotel. Michael decides to get rid of Kath, but not lose Lizzie.

The story is told to us through the first person points of view of Lizzie, Taylor, Michael and Finn. Each chapter has a different PoV. The narration starts a few weeks before the vacation, and then continues through each day of the holiday in the two cities, ending with what happened months later after they all return home to Portland, a kind of epilogue in four voices. The multiple viewpoints make it hard for us to be sympathetic to any one character, and enforce neutrality upon us.

The trip is crucial. It is when they are thrown together in such proximity that the characters behave as they do. The women have absolutely nothing in common with each other, nor do the men.

With no clear plot, it is the characterizations that draw the story forward. Subtly, we see how men and women differ in the ways in which they lie and conceal important facts and circumstances in their lives. We see the tangled webs they weave in their attempts to deceive one another.

Each character believes the best of themselves and good or ill of others, depending upon the state of their affections. The characters all have their games plotted out against their partners. Michael considers himself unfaithful on the two occasions when he has sex with his wife.

Most of the characters make good observations about the others. Taylor says of Finn: Finn takes a backseat to his own life. Perhaps it is true when they say that marriage makes philosophers of us.

Finn describes Taylor as a lot of sharp angles, like Edward Scissorhands, a vulnerable type who might slice you up.

Taylor is a mother who is devoted to her child. She says, “I’m very accommodating, although I’m not sure anyone realizes it. Because of her love for her child, I began by liking Taylor the most. Later, my sympathies shifted to Lizzie.

The best description about Taylor comes from what her mother once said of her: You are a long trail through the woods…and in the woods people prefer a shortcut.

I enjoyed Lizzie’s descriptions of the thing that writers do, taking a friend, swallowing him (or her) whole, and turning him into a character to suit their own fictional purposes.

Throughout the novel, Michael turns his life into fiction, living his life like research, using it to write the life of his lead character, Julien, who is also having a romp outside marriage.

April, Taylor’s friend, makes observations in absentia that Taylor brings to us, about how women who aren’t mothers are emotionally stunted but more importantly about how mothers feel guilty about everything even when it’s not their fault. Now, don’t I know that?

Strangely, Taylor says her best friend is Rachel, but it is April she keeps quoting.

The writing is interesting, clever, the quick turns of phrases amusing and thought provoking. Telling you truths about how marriages can get, once the euphoria fizzles out.

And by the way, I thought the cover with its broken glass, was nice. A tad overdone and simplistic maybe.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

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