Friday, September 11, 2009

They were all too graceful to be true - the serious pleasures of The Light in the Piazza

So I have a theory that I in fact had heard of Elizabeth Spencer, author of the best-selling novella The Light in the Piazza, but had relegated her to the category of "things I don't need to know about" out of some sort of middlebrow snobbery. Best-seller = a disdainful sniff and a disapproving frown. I don't remember being so snobby, but who knows. Regardless, The Light in the Piazza is the best thing in The Southern Woman, a light toned, comic, but quite serious study in the ethics of motherhood.

Margaret Johnson is on a long Italian vacation with her daughter who, well:

"Due to an accident years ago, she had the mental age of a child of ten. But anyone on earth, meeting her for the first time, would have found this incredible. Mrs. Johnson had managed in many tactful ways to explain her daughter to young men without wounding them." (260)

But Italy is different, Italy is a magical place. The daughter collides with a fine young Italian fellow:

"There went the straw hat she had bought in Fiesole. It sailed off prettily, its broad red ribbon a quick mark in the air. The young man was after it; he contrived to knock it still farther away, once and again, though the day was windless; his final success was heroic." (259)

Not that I read fiction for the punctuation, but the semicolons and commas in that last sentence cannot be improved. That is a well-paced sentence.

The rules are different in Italy, and different for tourists. Perhaps Margaret does not have to be so vigilant about scaring off the young Fabrizio Naccarelli. It's not serious. But as the love affair becomes more serious, the mother can't seem to find the opportunity to tell the truth, to end things.

Spencer deftly mixes the mother's own psychology with her love for her daughter. She is obviously (right) wrong not to tell Fabrizio and his parents about her daughter, especially when the possibility of marriage appears. But what if the rules in Italy really are different - for example, about what a marriage means?

The mother wants to assure her daughter's happiness. Is that a selfless or a selfish impulse? Does she want to get rid of her difficult daughter, or keep her for herself, forever? Spencer keeps tangling the issue, and the mother's decisions, sometimes passive, sometimes quite active, seemed completely natural to me.

The book jacket of The Southern Woman says that The Light in the Piazza has sold "more than two million copies worldwide." Good. I'd recommend it to just about anyone.


  1. I may have to get The Southern Woman..."a light toned, comic, but quite serious study in the ethics of motherhood" sounds just like the right kind of book for me right now. Light in the Piazza sounds v. enjoyable--well-written and interesting. I couldn't help but think about A Room With a View when I read your review.

    BTW, I have nominated you for a Superior Scribbling award...stop by my blog for details. Write on...

  2. Mother/daughter relationships are an endless fascination for me. Not only because I'm in one, but because they're so interesting to study in those around me. So often, daughters hold their mothers in great disdain; in my case, I probably love my mother too much. But, I didn't always.

    Anyway, you've made this novella quite sound quite compelling to me. Regardless of the (perfect ;) setting, the relationship seems most fascinating.

  3. A Room with a View - ah, yes, definitely. I hadn't thought of it, but the Spencer story is related to Forster. A niece, maybe.

    Thanks for the award, by the way.

    Belleza, I think you'd really like this book. The daughter's handicap could be a gimmick, but instead it's used as a way to look at, what to call it, a test case, an extreme case, a way to highlight certain aspects of the mother-daughter relationship. Really sharp.

  4. I've never heard of Elizabeth Spencer before. This story sounds really good, and what a dilemma for the mother!

  5. Stefanie, I think you would definitely like this story. And the mother turns out to be - well, she's a pretty great character in her own right.