Superficiality Doesn’t Get Any Deeper Than This
Review of Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr
If you know next to nothing about Italy, are never planning to visit, and are perfectly content to allow your impressions of the country to be informed by Under the Tuscan Sun-like romanticism and shameless, treacly sentimentality, then Four Seasons in Rome is the travel book for you. Otherwise, Doerr’s constant doses of high-sugar, low-fiber commentary about his and his family’s year in Rome are only going to have you reaching for your insulin pen. Are we really (I mean, are we REALLY??) still at the stage where someone can publish a book about Italy in which his entire contribution to the genre is to rehearse postcard stereotypes and Merchant-Ivory clichés? Call me simple, but I’d truly have thought the market was completely glutted with sixteenth-of-an-inch thick observations on how “wonderful” and “beautiful” Italy is–made by people who don’t speak the language, who never stop being tourists, and whose apparently unlimited financial and other resources insulate them entirely from the realities of Italian life. Being a casual visitor is a fine and respectable pastime, but it doesn’t qualify you to write a book. Doerr, however, is undaunted, awhirl in whimsy and wide-eyed wonder. From his innocent astonishment that tomatoes actually taste good (he does live in Boise, Idaho, after all) to his tired (and tiring) insistence that he and his wife never saw a badly dressed Italian–or a fat one–to his second-rate tour-guide rhapsodies over the Pantheon, Doerr never lets a bromide or a platitude get away from him. When a Roman waiter makes him and his wife wait 90 minutes for their dinner check, Doerr’s only reaction is to go all dewy-eyed over how “relaxed” and “laid back” people are in Italy. Please, Anthony. The waiter was rude. There’s no great mystery to it. It happens all the time in Italy, especially to tourists, especially in Rome, and especially to people who are willing, as the Italians say, to fare il fesso–that is, let someone else make an ass of them. Gird your loins as well, Gentle Reader, for page after darling, cooing page about the marvel of Doerr’s one-year-old twins and for detailed descriptions of just how darn difficult it was to try to wheel them around Rome in a double-stroller that I can only imagine was a special treat for all the people who had to contend with it on buses, down sidewalks, and in museums. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Doerr’s prose is pretty, even poetic. The trouble is, that’s often all it is: a Fabergé egg, a festoon, the rich-and-creamy icing on a cardboard cake. In his 220-plus pages on Rome, there’s almost no there there. (Don’t be misled, either, by the subtitle’s promise of information about “the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World”; Doerr didn’t actually attend, and most of what he knows about it he saw on television.) In more than a few passages, he gets so carried away making perfect little netsuke sentences that he forgets he’s supposed to be transmitting actual meaning in the process. Yes; I admit it. I have a bone to pick: Doerr has nothing particularly interesting, profound, insightful, or new to say about Italy. That sure didn’t keep him from getting a book contract, however, which suggests that attending the right cocktail parties is a sure shot to success. Merit, while appreciated, is not required. And Four Seasons in Rome is yet more evidence that, when it comes to anything with the word “Italy” stamped on it, the American public is all too willing to fare il fesso.