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.

Have Books, Will Travel

bookshelvesSome people flip through photo albums to fondly remember past vacations. Others, in today’s social media-crazed society, may look back over their Instagram posts to see snaps of time spent away with family or friends, in some exotic location, or just for a short getaway. Me? I just pull up my Goodreads list of books read, and I can happily remember great trips or time spent with family by seeing a book title and the date I completed it. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, and my bookshelves can vouch for that. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Metamorphosis of Me into a Literary Reader: A 1987 Thanksgiving break visit to my future husband while he was in grad school in Charlottesville, Virginia, opened my eyes to Franz Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis. Just barely surpassing a frat house for cleanliness and style, I enjoyed the quiet of his apartment and his English major roommate’s bookshelf.
  • Hunting for Something to Read: Over Christmas break in 1999 in Louisiana, awake in the middle of the night with nothing to read, I borrowed Hunt for Red October from my brother-in-law’s bookshelf, my first and last Tom Clancy.
  • Tea Time Will Make You Fat: Living overseas for two years allowed us the ability to travel around Europe inexpensively. In the fall of 2002, just after unpacking and getting ourselves settled, we traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, to see my mother’s cousins and extended family. cooks bookshopWe spent a lovely day at Edinburgh Castle and shopped on the Royal Mile that afternoon, where I stumbled upon the Cooks Bookshop, owned by Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the pair of British cooking celebs I knew from a PBS cooking show. We went in and naturally I had to buy the first of their cookbooks that accompanied the PBS series, Two Fat Ladies.
  • James Bond a la Provence: In the summer of 2003, while living for two years in Belgium, my family spent a week in Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Provence, France. In advance of the trip, I visited the high school library of the international school my daughters attended to check out some books to bring along. One book was an omnibus edition of five Ian Fleming novels. I have such fond memories sitting on the balcony of the rental apartment, reading this hardback while sipping a cool drink and listening to the waves.
  • pittsburghNo Hunger, Too Busy Reading to Eat: Easter break of 2012, I read an entire book in the bathtub of a Pittsburgh Marriott Courtyard hotel room. I was just going to relax in the tub and read a few pages of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, but I ended up adding hot water repeatedly until I finished the whole book.
  • lewes24 Hour Getaway: In October of 2012, my hubby and I drove to Lewes, Delaware, for my birthday weekend. While there, I managed to squeeze in enough reading to nearly get through Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Part mystery, part puzzle, part homage to bookstores, this is still a favorite of mine.
  • Rocky Read of Rowling: In the summer of 2014, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Kennebunkport, Maine. maineWith high winds and rough seas, our water activities were canceled several times, but I happily sat on the sunny porch of the inn where we stayed, reading (J. K. Rowling’s alter ego) Robert Galbraith’s second detective mystery novel in the Cormoran Strike series, The Silkworm. Note: book 2 is decidedly creepier and more graphic than book 1 but not nearly as creepy and graphic as book 3. I’ll need a brightly lit room and a stiff drink to make it through book 4.
  • los angelosFirst Anniversary of Baby Bird being Gone: My younger daughter moved to Los Angelos over Easter break of 2016 to pursue her dream of being a screenwriter. While on this life-changing trip to drop her off, I read Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, my first of her novels. The tone and mood perfectly matched my own bittersweet feelings of the time.
  • All the Time in the World to Read: July of 2016 found me in Fort Myers, Florida, visiting a dear friend in her beautiful home. After she left for work each morning, I would have coffee and read on her “lanai”. fort myersAs the mid-day sun became a bit too much, I’d dive into her pool and swim lazy laps. In stark contrast to this paradise of a setting, I read a friend’s debut novel, All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell, which takes place in the ultra-glamorous Upper East Side of Manhattan.
  • Puerto RicoYes, Chef, More Mofongo: Over Thanksgiving break of 2016, my husband took me to Puerto Rico for my 60th birthday. Amidst all the great food we ate there, including mofongo, I devoured Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.
  • Water, Water, Everywhere: Summer of 2017 found me on my first ever mother-daughter road trip, traveling to Niagara Falls. niagara fallsWhile my daughter was off at her conference, I sat in an outdoor cafe with a big cup of coffee and Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings. No waterfalls featured in the story, but all the action takes place on the Chesapeake Bay.

One thing is clear after gathering my photos of the places I have written about in this essay: it seems like I like places near the water as much as I like books!