I have just finished reading Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love, a memoir by Justine van der Leun.
I have to admit that I was a bit dubious when I was approached by the publisher to review this newly released title. I am rather allergic to books written by Americans about their "Italian experience." Speaking very generally, they tend to find Italy "charming" or "picturesque" and often have an "oh my God, aren't these people cute!" attitude that just about drives me up the wall. And let's not even get into how they butcher the language and misinterpret local customs.
I have lived in Italy for over 18 years and am happy to be here. But I have never considered it to be cute or picturesque. That sort of reductive interpretation doesn't do justice to the complexity and reality of any nation or culture.
Let me just say...I hated Under the Tuscan Sun. On one of the most embarrassing flights I ever made from the US to Italy, the movie was being shown. The Italians on board were noticeably put out by the representation of their country and countrymen in the film...and I was embarrassed to be there as an American who perhaps saw them in that stereotyped way. That is just one of the many, many annoying books written about Italy by Americans.
But, Marcus of Umbria breaks the mold. It is the tale of a young American woman who falls head over heels in...in lust, I would say...with an Italian gardener and in the wink of an eye (like literally a two week time frame) throws over her life in New York City and moves in with him in the Italian equivalent of the rural middle of nowhere.
Thinking rationally, which van der Leun admits she was not doing at the time, it is clear that the relationship was probably doomed from the start. In my opinion, it's hard enough to create a balanced functional relationship with someone you have a lot in common with in your own country. Go figure with a person with whom you do not share a common language, cultural background, customs, daily habits, expectations from life...you name it.
Into her daily drama of trying to fit into the lives of her new boyfriend and his family, an important element to factor into any love relationship with an Italian, comes a sweet little abused dog who becomes van der Leun's raison d'etre.
The memoir paints a vivid and, I believe, highly accurate picture of life in rural Umbria with a farming family. The author describes cultural differences and expectations that were a puzzle to her, but she does so in a way that completely respects the people she is writing about and in no way holds her beliefs up as superior.
I enjoyed the book very much. I like the author's way with words, her capacity for describing and explaining her Italian experiences without falling into cliches or stating (or mis-stating) the obvious. I appreciate how she is quite straightforward in talking about her own responsibility and role in all that happened during her year in Italy. I just love that it's not all rosy, but neither is she whining or complaining about anything or anyone.
I'd say someone finally got it right!