Book Review: Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

By Anthony Doerr (Published June 12, 2007 by Scribner Book Company)

I realize I am late to joining the Anthony Doerr fan club, but I tore through this piece of nonfiction in less than two days. I probably would have finished it in one day had I not stopped so frequently to admire his wide breadth of knowledge in many different subjects as well as his just outright beautiful command of the English language. He may not be fluent in Italian after living there for an entire year, but man, oh man, can he write!

Years ago I discovered the British tv series A Year in Provence based upon a book of the same title written by Peter Mayle, a British advertising executive who retires to an ancient farmhouse in Provence, France, to try his hand at writing a novel. The novel doesn’t happen, and when his deadline for turning in the novel arrives, Mayle submits instead his journals of his four seasons in the French countryside, where he renovates the farmhouse with limited use of the French language. Novels do come later, but his reputation as a writer is secured with his anecdotes of the people in the nearby village, the glorious meals he and his wife share, and his outsider’s view of the beauty of the Provence countryside, earning him an award for best travel book of the year and eventually Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French government.  

Part memoir, part travelogue, part nature journal, Four Seasons in Rome comes about in much the same way as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. It is the story of how Anthony Doerr and his wife Shauna come to live in Rome for one year, after learning a mere twelve hours after his wife gave birth to twin boys of winning an award he had not applied for nor knew existed. Doerr is shocked to learn that he was anonymously nominated based upon his collection of short stories and debut novel. The award he won was none other than the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, that comes with a one-year stipend to live and write in Rome. Along with the stipend comes a furnished apartment next door to the Academy, where he is also given a studio as an office from which to write a novel of historical fiction about occupied France during WWII. 

Much like Mayle, however, he does not actually write the novel, which he later completes back in Idaho, and which subsequently brings him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. What he did write was a journal of his time in Rome, his love affair with the city itself, and his journey as the father of bambini gemelli in a foreign land. 

While strolling his twins over nearly every square foot of Rome, he observed nature–especially trees and birds, architecture, and the many fountains of Rome. It is here that his writing really shines. I’ve been to Rome twice, and I might as well have been blind-folded both trips as I didn’t see any of what he so eloquently describes. His descriptions of the birds and trees reminded me of one of my favorite books, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which also won Dillard the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. 

Doerr doesn’t actually come out and say he is Catholic in this book, but if he isn’t, he is the first non-Catholic I have heard of who was so consumed by the health and ultimate passing of Pope John Paul II. Having myself attended the outdoor Mass on Easter Sunday in St. Peter’s Square in 2004, which was the last time Pope John Paul II celebrated Easter Mass, I could feel what he was experiencing in a poignant way. Standing in the brilliant sunshine, we could see how frail and pale the Pope was, and we feared that he was nearing the end of his earthly journey. I really enjoyed reading Doerr’s memoir of his year in Rome, even the difficult parts surrounding his wife’s hospitalization. And now I’ll do something I should have done much earlier, read Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.