The first thing that caught our eye was the amazing, lengthy title. There are only a handful of authors who dare to give their novels a very long title, for the simple reason that readers find them memorable because of their title length, but the exact word order, and the words themselves are soon consigned to the four winds. Most authors and their publishers tend to keep well clear of excessively wordy titles (just take a good look at the book you are currently reading to bear this out). For example, Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder (just two words) is apparently the perfect title for a best-seller (lulu.com). So it was McNamara's courage to go with the wordy title that piqued our interest, and she is not the only brave author: others that come to mind are A Clash of Civilisations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, by Amara Lakhous, set in Rome; Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, set in Alabama; or Tante Jolesch or The Decline of the West in Anecdotes by Friedrich Torberg, set in Vienna. Or this, our longest title: What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife by David Harris-Gershon set in Jerusalem.
But titles aside, this novel, set mainly in Milan, was suggested for the TripFiction website by one of our contributors, and as soon as we saw the cover, combined with the intriguing title, we just knew we had to read it. This is definitely a cover composition that has Europe written all over it: the off-centre positioning of the woman's face, the heavy sunglasses, the gloved hand (no cigarette, however), gorgeously coiffed hair and the striking colour combination of pink and grey (and seemingly set in the lush surrounds of Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II).
Marilyn, the divorced lady of the title, is on an unspecified quest, after her husband Peter abandons her for another woman. In Marilyn's locality in the UK she hears tell of Jean, who has apparently made off to South America and found herself a new life and a new man. But Jean pops up again unexpectedly on her home turf, posting an ad for teachers to work at her Language School in Italy's second largest city, Milan. Marilyn is immediately hooked and takes off, leaving her two children in the tender care of Peter and his mistress. It is at this point the reader must suspend belief, as she flies into Italy and pops up the Piazza in front of Milan's station. Here, a chance encounter with a full blooded woman called Fiona, who happens to know Peter, leads her to find her first Milanese flat.
With Marilyn we explore the streets of Milan, the bars and the sites of the city; we get plastered with her drinking Prosecco at every opportunity; we pop into several underwear shops; and we eye up the men, as they eye up the women. She cries a lot. Years of being at home have left her feeling dowdy, but as she prowls the Viale and Piazze of Milan, she begins to discover her inner woman. She gradually morphs into a truly elegant Milanese lady, with style, pzazz and delicious underwear. And the more she experiences her carnal awakening with Federico or Arnaud, the more this novel becomes a Fellini-esque adventure. The momentum of exploration and wonder carries the book for about two thirds, but loses its way towards the end. There are just too many coincidences, too many odd happenings and too much meandering to sustain plot development going forward.
One of the real strengths of this novel is the incredibly articulate writing style. It feels like the author has really carefully chosen her descriptive prose and turns of phrase, and these are rich and meaty and hugely evocative of life in the city. It is a difficult book to skim-read which is a credit - the prose invites you to savour just about every word.
There is also a lot of Italian phraseology that peppers the prose which, depending on your knowledge of Italian is either a positive or a negative. Some is translated, some isn't. Some you can guess, some you can't. If you have no knowledge of Italian, it could be a tedious and exclusive facet of the narrative. On the other hand it could serve to immerse the reader into the full cultural trip of being in a foreign country. You will like it or hate it.
Reading this novel is like enjoying a really succulent meal, a strong writing talent full of flavour, but like the flimsy plot, is served up on a paper plate. We await this author's next book as her writing gift, given a good plot, should surely fly. Click on the cover of the book to find out more and to buy.
And if you would like to read more books set in Milan, then click here It's a wonderful city to explore via fiction. Drop by the TripFiction website for more destinations and "see a location through an author's eyes", it's a wonderful way to get to know a place! And we would love it if you would come and follow us on Facebook and @TripFiction on Twitter.
Tina and the TripFiction Team