In this arresting first novel about love and liberation, Italy is not just a place of popes and piazzas, but a cauldron of heady politics and equally heated passions.
At its center is Catherine Davidson, a young American who gets caught up in the excitement of an Eternal City on edge: women are taking to the streets to demand their rights, homegrown terrorists kneecapping their hapless targets, poor immigrants swelling the city’s underbelly. Determined not to be a bystander to history nor to let her southern upbringing sabotage her newfound independence, Catherine nonetheless gets in over her head.
Viewed with a sympathetic yet sharp eye by a third-person narrator, Catherine wrestles with the fact that her personal behavior doesn’t dovetail with her political beliefs and with the failure to live up to the expectations of others. While she revels in two love affairs, one with an open-minded Roman and the other with a refugee from Eritrea, they each expose her insecurities and jealousies.
It is an unlikely figure from Catherine’s past, however, who resets the course of her life: her former stepmother, a Dane who has returned to Europe after a decade in the South. Despite having ill-treated this woman throughout the marriage, Catherine finds common ground and new respect for her — so much so that she makes a momentous decision.
When Catherine left Vicolo Scanderbeg around 10 am to teach her class, she didn’t at first suspect anything out of the ordinary — albeit sirens were blaring in the distance. She was thinking of her own affairs, especially the long nights with Ahmed and where they might eventually take her. As usual, she paused for coffee at one of the bars near her bus stop. “All five,” one customer was muttering to another, both shaking their heads in disbelief. A woman nearby pronounced those apparently responsible “maledetti,” adding as an afterthought "not since the Germans" had there been anything so despicable. A businessman with a briefcase was describing how traffic had been blocked off around the Vatican and the Quirinale Palace. Something unprecedented had taken place. As the barista plopped a cappuccino down in front of her, Catherine gave him a searching look. In response, he upped the volume on the radio wedged on a shelf behind him between bottles of Campari. The President of the Republic was speaking, the gist being that he had declared a state of emergency. Wasn’t he caught up in some bribery scandal, this Giovanni Leone? Might he have stepped down? But no, Catherine reckoned: That hardly accounted for the shell-shocked faces around her. Then a news bulletin broke in, repeating what must have been reported earlier: Prime Minister Aldo Moro had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades that morning, his five bodyguards shot dead. The authorities were gathering in Parliament to map out their official response, the announcer went on to say. A dragnet was being put round the city. As best she could piece it together, the abduction had unfolded on a quiet residential street called Via Fani as the Christian Democrat leader was making his way from his home to his office near Montecitorio, a ride of 15 minutes by limo. It was unclear how many Brigade members were involved in the attack but they were well-rehearsed enough not to make obvious mistakes. The guards didn’t have a chance; nor did Moro. Now it would be up to the forces of order, such as they were. If the police were lucky, it might be just hours, Catherine reasoned, before they apprehended the culprits and freed Moro; she decided to brave the traffic jams and head to the university. As she approached the bus stop on the Tritone, one police car sped up the Via Milano toward the Quirinale and two others raced toward the area around Parliament. Once on the bus, she tried to go over her lesson plans. To no avail. This would be one of those classes in which the urge to discuss what was going on in “the real world” would trump any other topic. When the bus got to Porta Pia, one of the gateways to the city proper, barricades were being dragged into the adjacent streets and checkpoints erected. In a city as ramshackle as Rome though, rescuing someone kidnapped might be like finding a needle in a haystack. On the other hand, Catherine reckoned Romans were nothing if not nosy so any activity out of the ordinary would likely get noticed. Poor Moro, she whispered to herself, picturing his saturnine face. Of all the Christian Democrats she had observed on television — night after night since the public broadcaster RAI essentially functioned as the mouthpiece for the main political parties — he came across as one of the more well-meaning. If his speechifying was obfuscating, he was nonetheless dedicated to a cause: fashioning “un compromesso storico,” a historic compromise which would initiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Communists. Needless to say, this was a controversial strategy and not one that appealed to the entirety of Moro’s own party, let alone to Italy’s foreign supporters, most notably the United States. When Catherine alighted, a few minutes behind schedule, she made her way quickly toward her classroom. A shaken Dr. White passed her in the corridor. “You can handle your class any way you like,” he said, not bothering for a response. I’ve told the other teachers the same. But the students may as well get something out of this, as the city will doubtless be on lock down. No one is going to get home easily.” With that advice, Dr. White shuffled on down the hall and into his own office, mumbling to himself and slamming the door behind him. In the event, only 20 out of 35-odd students had bothered or managed to show up for the 11:30 class, and most were jabbering away when Catherine entered the lecture hall. “OK, let’s come to order,” she declared as soon as she reached her desk. Several students were in heated debate, while others were horsing around. Two women close to the front were, from what Catherine could make out, discussing the mid-season sales on the Corso. Not everyone, it seemed, was yet caught up by Moro-mania. “All right, people,” Catherine said, more emphatically than before, “let’s get through this so we can end up on time.” The students took their places and awaited their professor’s prompt. “As you know, the Red Brigades kidnapped the prime minister this morning. What do you think motivated them?” Catherine asked. She looked around to find a face that seemed opinionated. “They did it because the government is corrupt, even president Leone is on the take, and our country is — how do you say? — unfunctional,” a well-spoken student named Fabrizio declared. “Dysfunctional,” Catherine offered, without adding anything else. She looked around for other speakers. “That’s easy to say but it’s not so as easy to do anything concrete so to fix it,” another piped up, in not as proficient English. Catherine did not correct the grammar. “We have yet to find out what the Brigate Rosse would do to improve things. Yes, we know, the DC is built on — how, Professoressa Davidson, do you say ‘tangenti?’” “ ‘Bribes,’” Catherine quickly interposed. To this interpretation of the failings of the powers-that-be and the scathing assessment of the Red Brigades’ modus operandi, several students objected. “But why Moro?” she asked, her eyes alighting yet again on Fabrizio. “He is a symbol, actually the symbol of the most powerful party in the country. And, as such, this is a challenge to all of them to agree how to get him back,” the student went on. No one openly disagreed. Afterwards, as she was gathering her materials to store in the staff office, Catherine was accosted in the hall. "Allora," a voice addressed her in Italian, "You heard what we think, but where do you stand?" It was the unflappable Fabrizio. "Well, I don't know — Fabrizio, right? — I don't believe in violence, and, as to what benefit to society kidnapping the prime minister is, that’s a mystery to me. Not the way I would proceed if I wanted to change things." Fabrizio took this all in politely but without any pretense of agreeing. He continued to walk alongside as they exited the building. "Just to clarify: The Red Brigades don't want to change the government; they want to overthrow it. It takes grand gestures to bring something that ambitious to fruition," he said evenly. "Leaving aside the fact that they murdered five people this morning, what on earth do they wish to replace the government with? I've read their manifestos and they make little sense," she responded, trying to emulate his neutral tone. When he turned to face her, Catherine was struck by his piercingly dark eyes and thin lips: like a character in Shakespeare, but she couldn’t remember which. "At some point, we can talk more. As things develop." Without waiting for her to respond, Fabrizio inclined his head and took his leave. As Dr. White had warned, the bus ride back to the center was tedious. Catherine jumped off at Piazza Esedra and walked the rest of the way home.
Elizabeth Guider is a longtime entertainment reporter and editor who has worked in Rome, Paris and London as well as in New York and Los Angeles. Born in the South, she holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies from New York University. During the late 1970s she was based in Rome where she taught English and American literature and where much of the action of her first novel takes place. In Rome and later in London she worked as an entertainment reporter for the showbiz newspaper Variety, focusing on the film business, television and theater. She has also traveled widely, reporting on the politics affecting media from Eastern Europe and Hong Kong as well as covering various festivals and trade shows in Cannes, France. Back in the States since the early 1990's, she specialized on the broadcast television industry and eventually held top editor positions at Variety and latterly The Hollywood Reporter. Now a freelance journalist, she is hard at work on her second novel, a family saga set in the Deep South post-WWI. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Walter and their Siamese cat Cookie.