The American author Marlena de Blasi has written three good memoirs about living in Italy.
- A Thousand Days in Venice about meeting her husband Fernando, marrying him and moving to Venice.
- A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure about leaving Venice with Fernando and moving to a ramshackle farmhouse in southern Tuscany.
- The Lady in the Palazzo: At Home in Umbria about buying and renovating an apartment in an old Palazzo in Orvieto, Umbria.
Her latest book, That Summer in Sicily: A Love Story, is called a memoir, but is more of a novel about a family in a remote village in the mountains of Sicily.
Marlena de Blasi is on a book tour in the US for her latest book and stopped at Borders in Santa Fe last Sunday. Steve and I, and our friend Joan, went to see her. While I love reading her books, I always wondered what I would think of her if I ever got to meet her. Photos show her with dramatic makeup and her descriptions of herself in her books talk about her extravagant way of dressing (and all those velvet throw pillows in her house!!). I am more of a “no makeup and old blue jeans” kind of gal.
Well, I loved her! She was magnificent, captivating, enchanting. Yes, there was a lot of makeup, but she looked fabulous. Red lipstick, dark eye liner, dramatic black hair, beautiful russet jacket, big jewelry. She speaks with the most wonderful quiet, almost whispering, voice. She clearly has great passion for her life, her husband and her writing.
The crowd was disappointingly small – maybe a dozen people, mostly women – it had not been advertised well. I only knew about it because Joan saw it listed in the weekend paper. One woman asked me at the end if I had read any of de Blasi’s books. “All of them!” I said. She had been in the cafe next to the reading area and heard de Blasi’s charming voice, so came to the reading. She was in line to get “A Thousand Days in Venice” signed.
De Blasi started by talking to the group, asking if there were questions. The only question was “where is Fernando”. Turned out he was the charming, quiet man in the back row. He stood and said hello to the group. Then she talked about how she came to write the book. She was given an assignment by a prestigious magazine to write about the people in Sicily, not on the popular coastal areas, but inland, in the mountains. She knew many other writers had turned down the assignment, knowing how difficult it would be to get these Sicilians to give them the information they needed. She took the job, but failed to get the information she needed for the article.
Instead, she and Fernando went to a remote village, met an interesting woman who was from the town and formed “a harmonious society composed of many of the women – now widowed – who once worked the prince’s land alongside their husbands”. I copied that description from the book jacket because I have not read the book yet. She talked about going into the village and seeing a group of women washing their clothes by hand in the fountain. She and Fernando were looking for a hotel they had been told was there, but they could not find it. She asked the women. The women looked at them but would not answer. She asked again. No answer. Fernando asked. Nothing. As they were leaving she looked back and on of them nodded towards a nearby hilltop.
De Blasi said she would love to have joined the women to wash her shirt in the fountain – she immediately felt a kinship with the group. She talked about the simple way people live in these remote villages, so different from how we live now in modern areas.
Marlena and Fernando spent a month in the remote village, learning the story of these women, and then she wrote the book based on the story. She has not revealed the location of the village and you will not be able to identify the people from her novel. They do not want to be found. She said the photo on the cover won’t give it away. “That is a photo from England or somewhere” she said.
De Blasi said this book is a novel, but her publisher has it listed as a memoir since her other books are memoirs. I asked her how it was different writing someone else’s story and she said it was the same – that it was her voice in the book. She said that in the other books, even though they are memoirs, there are characters that she develops and writes for, so it is not so different with this one.
Joan asked her what she is working on now. She is now writing a novel, and it will be called a novel, set in Prague and another country (I can’t remember).
I spoke with her for a few minutes while getting my booked signed. They still live in Orvieto. I told her we knew the area where “A Thousand Days in Tuscany” was set because we had spent two weeks in Celle sul Rigo one year and two weeks in Cetona another year. She asked me if I remembered the man who ran the alimentari (grocery shop) in Celle sul Rigo. I did – he is strikingly handsome. And she told us they have dinner in Cetona regularly (at the same restaurant that we went to several times).
I searched for some online interviews with de Blasi and could not find any. If you find any, please post in the comments. I did find this essay she wrote on her publishers site: A Lover’s Guide to Venice.
I am looking forward to reading this new book!