It was meant to be such a delightful break. Two American couples, tangentially connected, decide to holiday together in Italy: first in Rome and then in Syracuse in Sicily (‘Siracusa’, the characters call it, to distinguish it from Syracuse in New York). Vivacious Lizzie hopes to rekindle her relationship with her novelist husband Michael, who has withdrawn into his most recent book. Her old flame Finn, now married to uptight Taylor, looks forward to spending time with his irrepressible former girlfriend. And Taylor, prim and self-consciously cultured, looks forward to introducing her precious daughter Snow to the glories of the Old World. Yet our travellers find that Italy exacerbates, rather than heals, their divisions. And worse is to come, for Siracusa will prove the backdrop to a tragic and unforeseen crescendo.
This is the first novel by Ephron that I’ve read. She’s better known as a screenwriter, mainly for You’ve Got Mail, which she co-wrote with her sister Nora Ephron. Siracusa is quite different in spirit, steering away from the rom-com arena into something darker, more unsettling and much more complex. As events unfold, we see the holiday from four different perspectives, each of the adults contributing their own take in their own distinctive voice. One of the great successes of the novel is the particularity of the narrative voices. Even without the chapter headings, you’d know within only a few lines who was speaking at any given time. And it’s through this constant reworking, the revisiting of one day over and over through different eyes, that we get to piece together a steadily more detailed picture of our characters. We understand a strange reaction, or overhear a conversation that another character misses, which can throw an entirely different light on a scene we’ve already witnessed.
At the centre of the drama are the two couples, both strained by the men’s boredom with their wives – whether that boredom is founded on incompatibility (as with Finn and Taylor) or simply a childish desire for novelty (Michael). Right from the beginning, we understand that Michael hasn’t been honest with Lizzie: that his absent-minded absorption isn’t to do with his book, which he’s scarcely started, but with the nubile and voluptuous Kath, a waitress at their favourite restaurant and, for some time, his mistress. Poised on the edge of breaking with Lizzie, Michael decides to leave the revelations until the end of the trip, unwilling to spoil their last holiday together even as he betrays her in every possible way. And so, trying to avoid Lizzie, trying to resist her enthusiasm and gusto for vibrant, colourful Italy, he throws himself into a friendship with Snow. Small, quiet, forgettable Snow, who spends her time in her mother’s overprotective shadow, but who begins to thrive on his attention.
I wonder how far readers can sympathise with different characters? Theoretically, each character ought to be equally relatable, but I feel that Lizzie comes out at the heart of the piece. Dynamic and romantic, she goes through life in a blaze of enthusiasm, and for me she was the most attractive of the characters – even though I have a horrible feeling that I share certain traits with over-prepped, culture-loving Taylor, the kind of person who has planned out the exact way one should encounter the Trevi Fountain for the first time. The women, I feel, are more interesting than the men, both of whom are cast in the same self-indulgent, selfish, grass-is-greener man-child mould. Epron also has interesting points to make, albeit implicitly, about the impact that an adult’s attention can have on a young child. I remember the thrill of being taken ‘seriously’ by adults when I was a kid and it always gave me a sense of power beyond my years – something which, as we’ll see, becomes ominously dangerous here. Snow, of course, is difficult to read – but she turns out to be the fulcrum around which everything turns: a sinister, sly, silent little girl.
This is described on the cover as a ‘psychological thriller’, but it’s a slow, subtle one and not for those looking for sudden shocks. The pleasure comes from watching the web growing around the two couples and the child, and from gradually figuring out what might happen, and to whom. It’s fresh and compelling – a good read for a long journey or a quiet afternoon, when you can let the tension build up at its own pace. I’ve been very careful to avoid spoilers here but would love to hear your thoughts about the characters in the comments, where we can have all manner of spoilers…
By the way, I’m disappointed by the new cover that the book’s been given. It makes it look like some cheap shlocky shocker of a novel and, while it isn’t a blazing masterpiece, it deserves better than that. I much prefer the cover of my edition, which I’ve used here.
P.S. It’s hardly surprising, given Ephron’s background, that the book has already been optioned for a film. Perhaps that adds to its very cinematic quality – though it’ll be interesting to see how Hollywood deals with four main characters, none of whom are wholly likeable and three of whom are positively unlikable for long stretches of time…