When Cesare Met Beth
By Martha McPhee
Harcourt. 294 pp. $25
Often, for a love story to be interesting, there must be something keeping the lovers apart, an obstacle they need to surmount or die trying. Most famously, Romeo and Juliet had their families' feud, but wars and natural disasters also thwart love. In Martha McPhee's luminous L'America , the thorns pricking the lovers are country, culture and family upbringing.
McPhee, the author of Bright Angel Time and the National Book Award-nominated Gorgeous Lies , is a brilliant stylist, and here she creates characters so palpably real, they seem to ache on the page. Cesare is a pampered, handsome Italian saddled with a 500-year-old pedigree of wealth and expectations, and Beth is an American dreamer whose driving ambitions belie her heritage growing up on a hippie commune. They love each other's country as much as they do each other. Nearly from the first page, we know that their passion is doomed, and the novel operates as both elegy and meditation, focusing on "the accordion nature of time" as it roams all the way to 2017 and back to their childhoods.
When Beth first meets Cesare on a sun-splashed Greek island, she's the quintessential blonde, blue-eyed American in Europe. She falls hopelessly in love, and although Cesare is besotted with her as well, he can't leave his family or his culture. Expected to follow in his banker father's footsteps, and knowing that his father won't visit him in America if he relocates to be with Beth, he's torn. What is he really willing and able to do for love? Beth, too, has emotional shackles. Her mother died when she was 2, and her grieving father started a commune in his wife's name. His dead wife is as much an ideal to him as the commune is, and Beth soon realizes the heart-wrenching power that even a deceased lover can have.
Love does not conquer all, but perhaps part of the reason it fails here is that the characters are stubborn and more than a bit selfish. Do Cesare and Beth love each other, or is it each other's cultures that make their hearts skip a beat? Beth, under Cesare's tutelage, learns to speak Italian and to dress so well that she's mistaken for a Roman. Cesare idolizes Beth as "L'America," but realizes that his future has already been decided by his past. Gradually, despite loving each other, he and Beth veer into other less satisfying romances.
Theirs is a world of closed communities. In Italy, Cesare's father impresses upon him the importance of filial duty. Beth's father cannot leave his commune even to help and heal his daughter. " What has haunted you, what have you longed for and missed and dreamed of? " Beth asks Cesare, and the answer encompasses more than her love.
Still, the novel haunts. McPhee pitch-perfectly captures the discombobulating trance of first love, the rapturous power that lasts through a lifetime. What do we owe our hearts and our heritage? Where is our identity, and what happens to it when we love? Cesare comes to visit Beth in America, but her cramped Manhattan apartment, which once seemed so wonderful and uniquely American to him, now seems squalid and he feels tense and out of place. "I don't know who I am," he says simply to Beth. But Beth knows who and what she is, and though she spends long stretches with Cesare in Italy, her bred-in-the-bone ambition drives her back home to the States.
McPhee is an exquisite writer, and L'America is dizzyingly hypnotic, roaming back and forth across time, telling the story through Cesare, Beth and, later, through Beth's grown daughter, Valeria. The shadow of 9/11 is subtly referenced throughout the story, and its power becomes almost unbearable.
But marring the story is an authorial voice that occasionally intrudes in an unnecessary way ("but that's later, much later," McPhee states at one point). And sometimes the storytelling doesn't quite work. We never really get to know Beth's daughter, so her pronouncements about her mother's love affair don't carry much weight. The somewhat arch beginning spells out the novel's themes, which are powerful enough not to have to be so explicitly stated. And, even more problematical, I couldn't help but feel that the feckless Cesare is simply not worthy of Beth.
Despite these small flaws, L'America is a heartbreaker of a book about everyday people made extraordinary by love. Sensuous and evocative, it's best summed up in the last line: "ordinary people engaged in ordinary lives that amount to everything." ·
Caroline Leavitt is a book critic for the Boston Globe and the author of "Girls in Trouble."