I read Anthony Doer’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, last year, but I never did review it here at Semicolon because I just didn’t love it the way everyone else did. It was OK, but I probably went into it with my expectations raised too high. So it turned out to be just OK.
However, I did like Mr. Doerr’s writing enough that when Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended Four Seasons in Rome to one of the guests on her podcast, I thought I’d give it a try. And I thought it was quite a lovely book. It’s short, about 200 pages, and sweet, all about the year that Doerr and his wife spent in Rome with their twin baby boys. The day after the twins were born, Mr. Doerr got a letter inviting him to be a fellow in literature at the American Academy in Rome. He will have a year work on writing anything he wants. He doesn’t have to produce anything or prove anything to anybody, just write, expenses paid. It’s too good an offer to turn down, even though the birth, care and feeding of their twins has thrown both Doerr and his f=wife, Shauna, for a loop.
Everyone thinks Doerr and his wife are crazy to take six month old twins and move to Italy, to Rome. But what an adventure! The author spends approximately equal time on the difficulties and joys of caring for twin boys, the beauties and treasures of Rome, and the characteristics and dilemmas of the writer’s life. It’s a good combination. Just as I became a little tired of reading about teething and toddlerhood, the narrative would switch to the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, and then to Mr. Doerr’s studio as he attempted to work on his novel, All the Light We Cannot See, but was only able to write a short story plus the journal entries that formed the spine of this book.
On twins: “There is a circle of understanding, an unspoken fellowship, between parents of multiple babies. Two days ago a Roman mother grappled her twins onto the tram at Largo Argentina, one baby clipped to her chest and other in her arms. She flipped her hair out of her face and her gaze took in Henry and Owen, the stroller, me, and for a half second our eyes met. Something in my heart flared. I thought, Hang in there. You’re not alone.”
On writing: “I x-ray sentences; I claw away at a paragraph and reshape it as carefully as I can, and test it again, and peer into the pages to see if things are any clearer, any more resolved. Often they are not. But to write a story is to inch backward and forward along a series of planks you are cantilevering out into the darkness, plank by plank, inch by inch, and the best you can hope is that each day you find yourself a little bit farther out over the abyss.”
On Rome: “Something about this city exacerbates contrasts, the incongruities and contradictions, a Levi’s billboard rippling on the facade of a four-hundred-year-old church, a drunk sleeping on the tram in $300 shoes. Four mornings ago I watched a man chat with the baker for five minutes while half a dozen of us waited behind him, then climb into a Mercedes and tear off at fifty miles hour. As if he had not a single second to spare.”
Recommended, especially if you’re planning a trip to Rome anytime soon—or if you want to make a journey there vicariously.