Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Andrea Lee, the author of INTERESTING WOMEN and LOST HEARTS IN ITALY (among other books) is one of my favorite writers and has been since I first discovered her prose in a short story in The New Yorker years ago.

The story struck me because, unlike a lot of the fiction The New Yorker publishes, it had a resolution. Not an O'Henry, tie-everything-up-in-a-nice-bow kind of resolution, but something more satisfying for me than the usual New Yorker short fiction ending of... drifting off into understated dreariness or deliberate there-are-no-endings-to-life's-stories-other-than-death-so-what's-the-point-etc...

I also dug that first story I read and ones that followed because Lee writes about human interactions and personal discoveries and experiences I can identify with, and yet locates them in scenes and populates them with characters I know only indirectly if at all. Usually her narrators and protagonists are like her: attractive, multi, or mixed race, Harvard or ivy-league educated, Northeastern well bred women who end up married to, or having affairs with, wealthy, aristocratic older Italian men.

The stories are often set in Italy among clans that go back for centuries and follow social dictums that seem obscure if not exotic but which her narrator always explains in ways that make it all accessible and meaningful, at least for me. The stories are also always sensual, often lyrical, and almost always revelatory in ways I haven't seen in any other fiction.

That's an amazing accomplishment, recognized to a large extent when her short story collection, INTERESTING WOMEN, came out several years ago, but not so much when her last book, the novel LOST HEARTS IN ITALY was published a couple of years ago.

The New York Times Book Review panned the novel. The reviewer, a woman, tried to make the point (and failed in my opinion) that you had to be like Lee—a mixed-race beautiful female graduate of Harvard living among wealthy, aristocratic Italians—to appreciate the book. She, the reviewer, actually compared Lee's writing to Philip Roth's (who praised Lee's earlier work) saying that though he often wrote of a specific time and place and ethnicity (New Jersey Jewish pre-baby-boom generation) and out of a persona close to his own, his fiction was "universal" because of his...and there she lost me since her argument made no sense to me (I sent my reaction to the Book Review but they declined to publish my letter).

I like Roth. Loved his early work (GOODBYE COLUMBUS, PORTNOY'S COMPAINT, et. al.), but actually find the resolutions in his later books disappointing. I read them, enjoying the craft and the language and the millieu—especially since it's familiar to me having grown up in the same area not long after he did—and then the book ends and I feel let down.

I never feel that way with Lee's writing. And yet, despite her achievements, when I look for her books in the bookstores still left, they're never on the shelves, because she hasn't won the awards and recognition I believe her work deserves. If you like reading fiction and discovering something new and don't know her work, I highly recommend INTERESTING WOMEN as a great introduction to what I find so appealing and satisfying in her writing.

[PS: What inspired this post was finding some used copies of these two books in one of my favorite used bookstores outside Sheffield Mass. in an old barn. I had given my original copies away and decided to buy the used copies and reread them from my post-brain surgery perspective to see if I still dug the writing and discovered I love it even more, especially the stories in INTERESTING WOMEN. Exquisite.]

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