“I was delighted by the humor and touching sentimentality in this tale about second chances to repair broken dreams. For me, it was a fun mash-up of a madcap romantic comedy of the Hollywood type and a serious deflation of the same scenario. I would follow happily along for long stretches, confident that the characters silly troubles would be resolved by the end. Then I would get bowled over with the serious and sometimes brutal truths that emerge along the way.
At the start, the action alternates between a group of disappointed characters in a backwater Italian seacoast town in 1962 (and a set of people in contemporary Hollywood dreaming of pulling off the next big successful movie and another. For the first setting, enter stage left is Pasquale. He manages the only hotel (“Hotel Adequate View”) in a tiny cliff town where he has returned from an academic life (and failing love relationship) in Florence to take care of his ailing mother after his father died. His dream of turning this run-down community of old fishing families, Porto Vergogne (“Port Shame”) into an attractive resort is obviously foolish. But the arrival of a lone American actress one day, Dee Moray, electrifies his hopes. Unfortunately, she is ill and seems to have been dumped there for some reason by a dastardly lover associated with the movie she had a part in being filmed in Rome (details withheld as spoilers). In a lovely set of exchanges and soul sharing, Pasquale falls for her, and soon he takes noble action to advocate for her cause with those who have wronged her.
Back in present times 50 years later, we have the pleasure of the company of Claire, who works as a development assistant to a once highly successful Hollywood producer, Michael Deane. She hitched her wagon to him as a better dream than her unrewarding academic studies of film. But after a dry period with only a stupid reality TV show and Zombie B-movie, she gives herself one more day of listening to film pitches to discover a worthy prospect for a quality film or else she will jump ship for a different job. She is also on the verge of dumping her porn-addicted boyfriend, the source of a number of belly laughs for me. At the last minute, two men show up. One is a young guy, Shane, who wants to sell his implausible idea for a tragic movie about the Donner Party (remember the tale of starvation and cannibalism among pioneers caught in a blizzard crossing the Rockies?). The other man is an elderly Italian who wants to see Deane about the whereabouts of an actress Claire never heard of. Surprisingly, when called to the scene, Deane is interested both in producing the movie and wants to drop everything to help the Italian find the missing actress.
The rest of the book works to bring the two sets of characters together to make a single story. There are about a dozen characters, each with their own story related to ruined dreams, but as they all work toward some form of healing solution, their stories blend in a satisfying illusion of unity.
One of the most poignant side stories concerns the only other regular foreign guest, Alvis. He is an alcoholic American who served in Italy during World War 2 and comes to secluded Porto Vergogne to work on a novel to make sense of that experience. A passage from the one chapter he has managed write captures a bit of his sad state:
God this life is a cold brittle thing. And yet it’s all there is. That night I settled into my mummy bag, no longer myself but a played-out husk, a shell.
Years passed and I found myself still a husk, still in that moment, still in the day my war ended, the day I realized, as all survivors must, that being alive isn’t the same thing as living.
Though he works as a car dealer in America, he once worked as a college lit teacher and thus had the skills to mystify Pasquale with this exchange when as a boy he asked Alvis why he came to Italy to write:
“Stories are nations, empires. They can last as long as ancient Rome or as short as the Third Reich. Story-nations rise and decline. …”
Pasquale grinned. “And if I ask if stories are empires, you’ll say .—“
“Stories are people … your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for awhile, we’re less alone.”
“But you never answered the question,” Pasquale said. “Why you come here.”
Bender pondered the wine in his hand. “A writer needs four things to achieve greatness, Pasquale: desire, disappointment, and the sea.”
“That’s only three.”
Alvis finished his wine. “You have to do disappointment twice.”