Not all couples are compatible traveling companions. Traveling requires a certain set of traits such as flexibility, curiosity and the ability to stay calm in moments of chaos. Even the strongest marriages can be strained with unexpected travel woes.
In Delia Ephron’s novel “Siracusa,” middle-age couple Michael and Lizzie set off for a vacation in Italy with friends Finn and Taylor. Chaos ensues and marriages are tested.
Ephron, a best-selling author and screenwriter, sets a story of infidelity and tragedy in the Sicilian coastal town of Siracusa.
The two couples are an unlikely match-up. Michael and Lizzie live in New York where he is a famous writer struggling with his next book and Lizzie is a free-spirited journalist. Finn, a restaurateur, and his wife, Taylor, live in Portland, Maine, with their 10-year-old daughter, Snow.
It’s quickly established that this is not a happy-ever-after travelogue.
“It’s been a year and some of us no longer speak,” Lizzie tells us in the opening chapter.
We begin at the end, with Lizzie reflecting on their trip, and the plot unfolds in alternating points of view. This technique allows us to get inside each character’s head, but it also reminds us of the subjective nature of opinions and observations. We wonder, who can we trust?
When they arrive in Italy for example, Lizzie thinks that Michael is distracted and cold because he’s struggling with his novel, when in fact we know that he’s in the midst of an affair with the waitress of their favorite restaurant back home.
“The book is like a lover, and it’s all my fault for taking you away from that lover,” Lizzie unknowingly tells Michael.
I cringed and could almost imagine Ephron sitting at her desk, laughing out loud as she plunged her characters into one delusion after another.
The women, with their conflicting personalities, are the most compelling characters. Lizzie is hot to Taylor’s cold. She is messy to Taylor’s clean. When Taylor pulls out a bottle of Purell, Lizzie can’t imagine being friends with someone who brings Purell on vacation.
“It reflects a constant awareness that the world is awash with bacteria.”
Upon their arrival in Siracusa, Lizzie describes the evening fondly. “Outdoor spotlights artfully placed made us and history look our most glowing. How beautiful we were. How beautiful everyone was …” while in the next chapter Taylor says, “Siracusa was tacky.”
Lizzie wanders aimlessly through the food market and describes Italian delicacies with gusto: “the gelatos in hues so alluring they might be shades of chiffon.” Taylor is stunning, sleek and sophisticated, and she drags her mysterious daughter from one historical venue to the next, checking them off her itinerary. The men, in comparison, come off as narcissistic and unsympathetic.
Ephron’s keen observations of human behaviors are the best part about this book. She’s written movies and plays with her late sister, Nora Ephron, including “You’ve Got Mail” and “Bewitched,” and dialogue is clearly one of her strengths. The scenes of the couples at dinner are some of the most engaging moments as they flirt with and frustrate one another. Ephron, however, is heavy-handed when it comes to dropping clues about the pending disaster. This Hansel-and-Gretel-like sprinkling of crumbs made me impatient.
We’re often told that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination, and that’s true here. This is a book about the complicated journey of marriage, and what happens when disaster strikes. Who do we stand by? Who do we protect? Early in the book, Ephron writes, “Marriage can’t protect you from heartbreak or the random cruelties and unfairness life deals out.”
She proves this theory by the book’s end.