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  • An Italian Affair
  • Written by Laura Fraser
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  • Written by Laura Fraser
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Written by Laura FraserAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura Fraser

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: July 17, 2001
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-42138-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

When Laura Fraser's husband leaves her for his high school sweetheart, she takes off, on impulse, for Italy, hoping to leave some of her sadness behind. There, on the island of Ischia, she meets M., an aesthetics professor from Paris with an oversized love of life. What they both assume will be a casual vacation tryst turns into a passionate, transatlantic love affair, as they rendezvous in London, Marrakech, Milan, the Aeolian Islands, and San Francisco. Each encounter is a delirious immersion into place (sumptuous food and wine, dazzling scenery, lush gardens, and vibrant streetscapes) and into each other. And with each experience, Laura brings home not only a lasting sense of pleasure, but a more fully recovered sense of her emotional and sexual self. Written with an observant eye, an open mind, and a delightful sense of humor, An Italian Affair has the irresistible honesty of a story told from and about the heart.

Excerpt

prologue
SAN FRANCISCO

Mi hai spaccato il cuore.

You’re reading a fairy tale in your evening Italian class when you come across this phrase. You think you know what it means, since the sea princess says it after her one true love abandons her, but you ask the teacher anyway.

“You have broken my heart,” he says, and he makes a slashing motion diagonally across his dark blue sweater.

“You have cloven it in two.”

Mi hai spaccato il cuore.

The phrase plays over and over in your mind, and the words in front of you blur. You can see your husband’s face with his dark, wild eyebrows, and you whisper the phrase to him, Mi hai spaccato il cuore. You say it to plead with him, to make him stay, and then you say it with heat, a wronged Sicilian fishwife with a dagger in her hand. But he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t speak Italian; you shared so many things in your marriage, but Italy was all yours.

Mi hai spaccato il cuore.

You hear the phrase so many times that it loses its meaning, it just becomes Italian music, and it takes you into another realm. You’re in another world, a place where people linger over lunch, drink full-bodied coffee, and stroll arm-in-arm at sunset. A place where the towns are built on such thick layers of tragedy and romance, stacked up like stones, that you can’t take anything that happens to you very seriously. A place where you wouldn’t be worried about running into your husband, who left you after a year of marriage for an old girlfriend, at an intimate little restaurant in your neighborhood. Where you wouldn’t be home making dinner, expecting to hear the thumping sound of him doing fast-paced yoga in the bedroom upstairs. Where you wouldn’t walk into the bathroom in the morning and miss having to pick up the Scotch glass and wet mystery novel he left behind on the ledge of the tub the night before. In Italy, you would be far away.

Mi hai spaccato il cuore.

Let’s say you have a few friends in Italy and you speak the language well enough. Maybe you could go there, just drift away from all of this and leave it behind. Maybe you would feel more like yourself again. Why not? And then a fantasy flickers and you think perhaps an Italian man might not be such a bad idea, either.
Someone speaks to you and you look up and see bright blue eyes with smile lines and a head of gray-black curls. Your Italian teacher. He puts a hand on your shoulder and you realize you are crying.

“Laura,” your teacher asks. “Che c’è?” What’s up?

You quickly wipe your eyes and gather up your books. “Mi dispiace tanto, ma devo andarmene,” you say. I’m so sorry, but I have to leave.

one
FLORENCE
When the plane touches down in Florence, it’s evening. Lucia is there, waving from outside the security area, flipping her short dark hair away from her angular face. She kisses you on both cheeks and says you look great, even though that can’t possibly be true. She speaks Italian faster than you can understand in your bleary condition, but you’re glad to just follow along. Lucia loads your bag into her miniature car and goes careening around the perimeter of the city and into the center.

Just outside the pedestrian zone, she maneuvers into a tiny parking spot, and you walk from there along the narrow cobblestone streets until you reach a pensione right in the historic center, near the Piazza della Signoria. You’re staying at a little hotel this visit because Lucia, an art teacher who was divorced, unhappily, in her late thirties, has a new boyfriend who stays over. So there’s no more room at her place. You don’t mind; Lucia seems so content, her face softer than the last time you saw her.

You ring at a massive wooden door, get buzzed in, and then squeeze into an elevator cage that barely fits the two of you and your bag. You greet the grumpy signora at the front desk, roused from her TV napping, and deposit your things. It’s late, but Lucia insists you have to go out for a drink.

“Andiamo,” she says, and you are glad to be persuaded.

You return to the streets, which, despite the hour, are filled with couples strolling, middle-aged signoras locking arms, tourists taking flash photos, and bands of teenagers gathered on the steps of the magnificent marble Duomo. You end up at one of the cafés on the Piazza della Repubblica, taking a seat at an outdoor table, the September night air still warm. The waiter comes up in his crisp white shirt and black bow tie, and without asking, Lucia orders you both glasses of spumante secco.

The spumante secco reminds you of a moment you shared the year before, when you were vacationing together for a few days in the Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coast, hiking from one fishing village to the next. You had arrived in Manarola, with its pastel houses stacked up around a tiny harbor, and sat down, dusty and tired, for a drink before dinner. Lucia had ordered the spumante, and by the time the waiter set the glasses down the sun was just setting beyond the little harbor, turning the whole sea as pink as smooth sandstone. “La vita è un arte,” she’d said, clinking glasses.

You had returned to that moment in your mind many times since, to cheer you up.

When the waiter brings the drinks, Lucia clicks glasses with you again. “Cin cin,” she says, chin chin. Then she gets right down to business, asking what happened with your husband.

“Raccotami tutto,” she says. The Italians have that wonderful verb, raccontare, that means to tell a story. Tell me the story about everything.

She says she can’t imagine how it happened. Just the year before, she reminds you, when you’d stayed with her for a few weeks, your new husband was always calling from San Francisco, just to tell you he loved you. In return, you had sent him cards you made with photo booth pictures, wearing Italian movie star sunglasses, blowing kisses, ciao ciao, telling him he was the only reason you didn’t stay in Florence forever.

“What happened?” Lucia asks.

You say you aren’t really sure, you’re still in a state of shock about the whole thing. You recount, as best you can in your night-school Italian, the bare details of the breakup. You’d been married just over a year, after being together for three years before that. He had a new job as a trial attorney, and you’d just had your first book out; you were both doing what you’d always wanted to do with your lives. Everything seemed to be fine, even if you were both very busy. Then suddenly, just as mysteriously as you had fallen in love four years before, he seemed to fall out of love.

“When did it start, this falling out of love?” asks Lucia, sipping her drink.

You don’t know. You had been luxuriating in your new marriage and didn’t see the signs of trouble. Maybe it was in February, on your birthday, when you first became aware of a rift between you. You had driven north of San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore. That was the place, you tell Lucia, that had reminded her of the Sardinian coast when she visited you there. It was the place your husband and you had hiked when you were first so amazed that you’d found each other. On that day in February, on the trail back from the estuary where you had watched some sea lions lounge in the winter sun with their pups, you brought up the topic of having a child. Your husband—let’s call him Jon—said he wasn’t sure it was a good time. You said it’s probably never a good time, but you had talked about it for a couple of years, and at thirty-six, you can’t wait forever. He was quiet for a while before telling you that if you did get pregnant, it would really freak him out.

“But he wanted to have children?” Lucia asks.

“Yeah, that’s why we decided to get married.”

Lucia blows out smoke with a sigh.

“I was so sure we were going to have a child,” you tell her, “that I even bought a set of maternity clothes.” You had never confessed that to anyone before. They were still in the back of your closet, because you couldn’t stand to give them away.

“You already bought maternity clothes?” asked Lucia. “Sei pazza, cara.” You’re crazy, my dear. She takes a long look at you and shakes her head. “Well,” she says, waving her cigarette, “you can always wear them if you get really fat.”

“Perfetto!” you say, laughing for the first time in months. “Do they serve gelato here?” you joke, scanning the restaurant for the waiter. Then your eyes rest back on Lucia, who has stopped smiling. “I was stupid,” you say.

“You weren’t stupid. You wanted a bambino. That’s natural. Go on.”

That day on the hike, the conversation shifted subtly, crucially. Jon said he wasn’t just freaked out about having a baby in general. He was freaked out about you having a baby together. In that one moment, the whole relationship was in question, everything was up for grabs, and he couldn’t explain why.

In the weeks after that, Jon got up earlier every morning to go to work, and stayed later after work at the gym. It also turned out that he was seeing a lot of a high school girlfriend, who, after being out of touch for twenty years, had called out of the blue. That explained why Jon, who had been too tired for months to make love at nine-thirty, was now coming home sometimes at one in the morning.

“He was seeing another woman?” asks Lucia, her bright face darkening. “Did you know her?”

You had met her once. You came home from being out with a friend one evening to find the remains of a cozy dinner, with candles and flowers. You called, and no one answered. You went upstairs to the bedroom, dreading the worst, and found them out on the terrace outside. They were wrapped in sleeping bags, drinking wine, staring at the moon.

“He knew you were coming home and he was there with another woman? In camping bags?” asked Lucia, incredulous. “What did you do?”

“I introduced myself.” She left quickly, and the rest was a blur of discussions and lies, even a broken plate (you threw it, of course). Suddenly you were in the third session with a marriage counselor where your husband said, flatly, I just want out of this relationship. He didn’t even call it a marriage. He dropped you off at home with an anxious, gripping hug, both of you crying, and that was it. He left.

“That was four months ago,” you tell Lucia, “in May.”

“I’m so sorry,” says Lucia.

You’re quiet for a moment, and then she makes a gesture flicking her fingers under her chin that Italians use to say, economically, forget him, he wasn’t worth it, life goes on and you’ll be better off.

“He seemed like he was an interesting, intelligent man,” Lucia says, “but he never had the love of life you have anyway, the sense of la bella vita.”

You nod. Lucia is right. There’s nothing more to say. You drain your glass, and Lucia gestures for another round.

“You’ll find someone else, someone better,” Lucia says. “I never thought I would at first, but eventually, I did. It may not have been in time for a family, but . . .” She sips her spumante. “Pero, è cosí.”

You lift your glass to Lucia. “To your new love,” you say. She smiles.

“And to yours. When he comes.”

The next morning, you wander around your favorite places in Florence. You stroll in the Boboli Gardens, hiking to the top, where the view of the city’s spires, domes, and red-tiled roofs has always awed you. But now it just looks like another postcard.

You walk back down through the park, taking winding paths that lead to the streets, and study the windows of the boutiques near the Ponte Vecchio. You pass the men’s store where the year before a charming salesman had spent half an hour helping you choose among the most beautiful ties in Italy, holding each one up under his chin, while you tried to decide which one you should send home to your husband. The tie you eventually agreed on had looked great on the Italian, and your husband had liked it, too—as much, anyway, as he ever liked a piece of clothing. When you met him, he had little regard for his appearance: aviator glasses, Grateful Dead T-shirts, bushy black hair, floodwater jeans. Beautiful smile, though. After living with you, he’d cut his hair, bought new glasses, some clothes that fit, and he’d received a lot of gorgeous ties. So now he looks great for his new girlfriend. And you look, well, older.

Next door, a boutique is just opening after lunch. You don’t ordinarily go into Italian boutiques, not only because their clothes are usually made for tiny people, but because if you go inside it shows you’re serious about buying something. You can’t just browse the way you can in the United States. You nod hello to the shopkeeper, a stylish woman in her forties with a long black mane, and glance at the colorful shirts stacked in twos and threes on minimalist glass shelves. When you were together, your husband had definite ideas about what he liked you to wear: nothing too colorful or sexy, lots of navy blue, anything with a polo collar, sensible shoes. For a free-spirited type, he had extremely Princetonian taste in women’s clothing. It was as if he’d been attracted to you for your exuberance, and then did everything he could to tone it down. You dutifully chucked your red shoes into the back of the closet and wore a lot of gray.

You ask the shopkeeper if you can try on a short magenta jacket. She looks at you doubtfully. “I don’t think it will work on you,” she concludes. Unlike in the United States, where clerks will sell you anything, no matter how unflattering, Italian shopkeepers don’t want to be responsible for any aesthetic errors walking around on the streets.

“Why not?” you ask her.

“Signora,” she says, delicately, “you have a large bottom and a small waist, and a short jacket will not look good on you. You must always wear a long jacket, fitted in here,” she says, gesturing to your waist.
She was right, of course. What were you thinking? You should never deviate from that slenderizing long-jacket rule. You also never should have walked in. They have nothing your size in that store, nothing big enough for you and your big bottom.

The shopkeeper, sensing that you are out of sorts, whirls around to another rack, sifts through, and hands you a bronze knit top with tiny skin-baring stripes of crochet woven in. “This will suit you,” she says. You try it on, half-heartedly, but it’s a little too clingy, a little bare. You emerge from the dressing room and stand, slumped, in front of her. “It doesn’t work on me.”

She studies you. “The color is good for your hair, it picks up the gold, and the brown in your eyes.”

“It’s a little too sexy,” you say doubtfully.

The shopkeeper gives you a look that suggests that nothing can ever be too sexy. “Well, you can wear a little camisole underneath it if you must,” she says, pulling at the fabric here and there. “And you have to stand up, hold yourself strong.” You straighten up a bit. “There,” she says, “you have a beautiful bust, you should show it off.”

You turn in front of the mirror. “This makes me look fat.”

The commessa throws up her hands. “You are a woman, you have a woman’s body, so what?” she says. “You should show what’s nice about your body. I think your husband will like this.”

He certainly wouldn’t have liked it. “I don’t have a husband,” you tell her, fingering the fabric.

“Well, then, it’s good to dress sexy for yourself,” she says. “Maybe even better.”

“D’accordo.” Yes. You could dress sexy for yourself. You walk out with a top that your husband definitely would have hated, for about the price of a really nice tie.

The next day, you wake up questioning why you’re in Italy. It’s September, your friends are all busy working, and you have no plans. You’ve been to Florence before, you’ve seen all the major museums and monuments already, but you distract yourself by being a tourist anyway. You wait with all the other tourists, a long line of ants, to finally get into the Uffizi, crowding around the Botticellis and Titians, trying to catch a glimpse of the paintings between all the elbows and shoulders.

You really aren’t in the mood for any more museums, so you rent a bicycle and ride up to Fiesole, past villas and vineyards, past the cliff where Leonardo da Vinci made some hapless assistant test out his first flying machine, and all the way to the top of the hill. The view everywhere is stupendous—cypress trees and olive terraces, Florence at your feet—but you can’t just sit there and admire it. You’re impatient to move on, to coast back down to town as fast as you can. No matter where you go, you always have the sense that something is following you close behind.

The following morning, you don’t care that you’re in Italy, you can’t get out of bed. You’re as tearful and depressed as you’d been in San Francisco; you’ve come all this way and all you can think about is how much you miss your husband, and how there’s no one to call if you want to call home. At lunchtime, it’s all you can do to finally get up and go see your friend Nina at her office near Santa Croce.

Nina is on the phone when you arrive, arguing with someone, gesturing angrily with one hand and greeting you effusively with the other. She drops the phone and runs over to embrace you, kissing you quickly on both cheeks, giving her assistant some instructions over your shoulder. Nina picks up her perfect black jacket and trim leather bag and motions you to come on, follow her out.

Nina, a sophisticated woman in her forties, stayed with you in San Francisco for a month several years ago, a friend of your Italo-American friend Cecilia, who had lived in Italy years before. At the time, you spoke no Italian, but Nina spoke a little English, and you communicated well enough that you admired her sensibility. She would make big bowls of exquisitely savory pasta, even though she swore she couldn’t cook. She felt so sorry for your boyfriend then, for going out with a vegetarian, that she once made him a steak and a roast for dinner. She ate lunch every day at the same Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, and said she had absolutely no desire to go anywhere else, to venture out to try Thai, Cambodian, or Vietnamese food because there was always a risk of getting cilantro in a dish, and cilantro tastes like soap. A petite, dark-haired woman with a smoky voice, Nina had brought few clothes with her, but always dressed impeccably in a wool skirt, twin set, and flat Italian loafers—even just to go to her English language classes. She couldn’t understand the way her American friend dressed, and once opened up your closet and demanded to know why you went around in sloppy jeans all the time when you had a wardrobe full of beautiful clothes. “Non ha senso,” she said. It makes no sense.

A year later, Nina’s friend—and now your friend—Lucia came to visit San Francisco with a group of her girlfriends. You had big dinner parties at your flat, everyone’s cheeks red with wine and laughter. They invited you to stay with them in a house in Monterey that they’d managed to exchange for a week for one of their places in Italy. You went hiking with Lucia in Big Sur—she was the only one of the Italian women who was interested in hiking—and you liked that she was so willing to be awed by the drama of the steep coastal mountains, and by the playful sea lions at the rocky beach. Even though you spoke only Spanish in common, you became great friends, closer than most friends you’d known in San Francisco for years. There was something simpatico between you.

After the Italian women went home, you decided to try to learn the language, taking one evening class after another and watching all the Marcello Mastroianni films you could get your hands on. You took advantage of having friends and a free place to stay and visited Nina and Lucia in Florence a couple of times over the years. You became familiar with Florence, knowing the bus routes and flea markets and out-of-the-way restaurants where only Italians ate. You went to cooking school for a week in a fourteenth-century villa in Tuscany, spending mornings making ravioli and risotto, and afternoons walking on dusty paths through vineyards, olive groves, and patches of purple thistles. Then it was two weeks in a language school overlooking the Arno in Florence, drilling passato remoto verbs with young Swiss students who were much more serious than you were, but who managed to make the language sound guttural and stiff. You went to a Bob Dylan concert in a medieval town square outside of Florence, your Italian friends insisting that you translate the lyrics, and then laughing when you tried, “all confused in a big mess of blue.”

By the time Lucia’s friend Giovanna came to San Francisco to stay for a month—nothing an Italian would ever consider an imposition, and so you didn’t, either—you’d learned enough of the language to carry on a decent conversation and slowly, slowly improved.

Now Nina leads you from her office into a busy little stand-up lunch place, where everyone crowds around the bar trying to shout his or her order. The guy behind the bar ignores everyone else when Nina approaches the counter. He asks what La Nina would like today, and she asks him what’s good. They have a long, flirtatious conversation while everyone else tries to catch the waiter’s attention. Finally Nina orders and steers you to a wobbly high table by the window, setting down a couple of glasses of red wine and then going back to the bar to pick up the plates of pasta. Nina tries a bite of the simple penne with fresh tomatoes and basil and exclaims about how good it is, thrilled at her choice, even though she eats at that same place every single day.

Nina says she was sorry to hear about your separation. “The first time you’re heartbroken is always the worst,” she assures you, dismissing the topic, and then asks about your vacation so far. You tell her about the exhibits and museums you’ve seen, and she is as excited talking about the art that surrounds her every day as she is about her lunch.

She shakes her head, marveling. “Laura, Laura,” she says. “Last time you were here, you said you would learn Italian, and now you’ve learned it!”

“I need practice,” you say.

“You need an Italian lover,” Nina replies, matter-of-factly. “That’s the only solution.” Nina lights a cigarette, considering that. “To everything.”

You tell her it’s not such a bad idea. More than anything, you say, just realizing it, you want to put a body between yourself and your husband. You don’t want him to be the last person you made love to, especially since the last time had been so horrible.

Nina asked why it had been so bad, and you tell her, because it’s somehow easy to tell intimate stories in a romance language. It was during the brief period when your husband and you had been tense with each other; he was on his way out of the relationship, and you were trying to hang on, still thinking it was just a difficult time, the kind of thing couples go through that ends up making their marriages stronger. You thought maybe if you made love, things would be better, you would reconnect. You had joked about it, saying it could just be like casual sex, and he reluctantly agreed. After you’d had sex, mechanical sex, you leaned over his face to kiss him, and he turned away. “No,” he’d said. “You’re not supposed to kiss on the lips.”

Nina gasps. “Incredibile.”

Afterward, you got up to take a shower, pounding hot, to wash the whole thing away, and you knew that it was the last time you’d ever make love to your husband.

“That’s terrible when you know it’s the last time,” Nina says. “But you always know.” Nina drags on her cigarette and blows the smoke out the side of her mouth. “After that experience, the angels made a special note that you deserve better next time. I’m sure.”

“Speriamo di sì,” you say. Let’s hope so. You pick at your pasta and tell Nina you’re glad Lucia seems happy with her new boyfriend, since Lucia had been depressed after she split up with her husband—although it’s hard to read depression in someone who is always so energetic and quick to laugh. You ask Nina if she is seeing anyone herself, and Nina waves away the question, too silly to consider. Then she confesses that she’s been dating a musician, and starts laughing at herself.

“He’s fat!” Nina bursts out. “I’ve never been with a fat man before!” She leans closer and whispers. “It’s like riding waves,” she says. “Wonderful!”

You like that image, and the way your Italian friends appreciate sensuality in all types, forget the ideal. You tell Nina that you yourself are cursed with always having skinny men interested in you. “Opposites attract,” you say.
Nina looks at your body in that frank way Italian women will size you up. “You’re thinner than you were last year,” she observes.

It’s the divorce, you explain. For the first time in your life, you’ve had no interest in food.

“Eat your pasta,” Nina commands, and you do, glad that your appetite is returning.

As you wait for the waiter to bring coffee, Nina asks what you intend to do for the rest of your vacation. You tell her you don’t know; you realize it’s a bad time to be in Italy, your friends are all busy, and you’ve spent enough time in Florence over the years that you don’t need another week dodging tour groups and looking at church interiors. You leave out that it’s too hard to be in a place where your friends are all in love. You want to visit Giovanna in Bologna, but she, too, was recently married, and so you really can’t stay there long, either. You don’t have a plan for cooking school or a language course. You’ve already been to Rome, Venice, Ravenna, Umbria, Bologna, Liguria, and Tuscany. Maybe you’ll go somewhere new.

Nina slaps her elegant little hand on the table. “Napoli!” she says, pleased with herself. “Perfect!” She’d just been to Naples, and had a wonderful time. The old architecture, the sense of beauty amidst decay, the food—it was all wonderful.

You’re surprised. You’d always heard that Naples was a dangerous city to travel in, especially for a woman alone.

Nina waves away that concern. “It’s like New York,” she says. “If you carry your camera in a plastic bag, keep your money close to you, and act like you know what you’re doing, you’ll be fine.”

“Maybe,” you say.

“And Ischia!” Nina exclaims, ignoring your reluctance. “Go to Naples, look around the old city—you must look around—and then get the ferry to Ischia.” Nina is definite, and full of plans, describing the island. “Or you can take the ferry from Pozzuoli, if you like. You can also go to Amalfi, to Pompeii . . .” Nina ticks off the possibilities on her fingers. “Just don’t go to Capri. Capri is crawling with tourists, and way too expensive. You’ll pay ten thousand lire there just for a cappuccino.” Nina downs her espresso in one gulp. She has solved all of your problems, so she checks her watch. She has to get back to work.

You walk back to Nina’s office, half a block away, and kiss good-bye. Nina runs up the stone steps to the grand front door of her building, then turns around. “Ischia, Laura,” she calls, waving. “Ischia.”
And so, the next day, you set out for Ischia. Maybe you’ll see Naples, Capri, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast, too, but your sights are set on Ischia. Something about a volcanic island with natural hot baths and long pebbly beaches sounds about right. Everything will be white stucco and washed with Mediterranean light. Everything else will be far, far away.
Laura Fraser|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Laura Fraser

Laura Fraser - An Italian Affair

Photo © Cristina Taccone

Laura Fraser has written for Salon.com, Vogue, Glamour, Mother Jones, Self, The San Francisco Examiner, Gourmet, and Health, among other publications. She has taught magazine writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. She lives in San Francisco.

Author Q&A

Q: AN ITALIAN AFFAIR begins with the potentially devastating news that your husband of one-year is leaving you for his high school sweetheart. You respond by heading to Italy. First, why Italy? And second, did it live up to your expectations?

A:
After my husband left me abruptly, nothing seemed real. Everything—our marriage, home, mutual friends, plans for the future—suddenly vanished. I was depressed and disoriented, and I realized I needed to escape to some place far away from our home. I’d spent some time in Italy, always felt cheerful there, and I spoke the language fairly well. So I made a plane reservation one day, impulsively, hoping I could outdistance my pain.

It worked for awhile. The sense of movement, excitement and wonder that comes when you’re traveling in a gorgeous place like Italy did let me forget my troubles for a time. But those things have a way of sneaking up on you again. There I was—surrounded by great art, lively Italian friends, incomparable food—and still, my husband was gone. I was as depressed in Italy as I had been home—which, in some ways, is worse. So I kept traveling, to an island, Ischia. It wasn’t until I met the professor there that I had my first glimmer that life could be sweet again.

Q: I’ve been amazed by how many women, upon reading your book, have admitted to having a secret fantasy about Italy themselves. Do women in other cultures see it in this same way, or is our fascination with the Mediterranean an American one?

A:
Americans definitely romanticize Italy. We have an idea that the place is one big, lush Merchant-Ivory production, filled with Tuscan villas, potted lemon trees, grape trellises, lavish meals, and people wandering around wearing perfect shoes and talking about Michelangelo. As wonderful as it can be, Italy is incredibly diverse and, like anywhere, has its problems. But what draws women in particular to Italy—besides its obvious artistic and culinary splendors—is its everyday sensuality. There is a palpable sense of flirtation in the air, which is harmless, flattering, and friendly. There is a courtliness that accompanies public interactions, even just buying pears at the produce market or ordering coffee at a bar. When you go to Italy, you feel like a woman, even if at home you don’t come close to matching the leggy, 23-year-old American magazine ideal. It seems to me that women from other western cultures that are both puritanical about sexuality and exacting in their feminine ideals—like the U.K., or Germany—are also often relieved to find themselves in Italy. Suddenly, they feel softer, more appreciated, more sensuous, more alive.

Q: Your book has been described as “every woman’s nightmare—desertion—and every woman’s fantasy—recovery by means of a sexy affair.” Is this description fair?

A:
I don’t know—it was certainly my nightmare and fantasy-come-true. But I think many women can relate to the story because they’ve experienced a similar loss that has irrevocably changed their lives, and they, too, have eventually become stronger for it, and even happier. Many women I know, after a divorce or another loss, spent time feeling like they were in a hopelessly big black hole, where they’d be forever. But after a while, they summoned up their resources and started figuring out how to climb up out of their depressed state. People cope in different way: some join support groups, some visit old friends or family, some move to a new place and a new job, and I went to Italy. In my case, it wasn’t just going to Italy and having an affair that eventually made me feel better (although that didn’t hurt!). It was that I proved to myself that life goes on without a husband, that even though the script was suddenly rewritten, the plot completely changed, and things were not proceeding the way I had always expected or dreamed, I could cope. I could eventually turn the situation around so that I was much better off. Living well really is the best revenge.

Q: What made you decide to write from the second person’s perspective?

A:
When I first came back from Ischia, I started writing a story about the trip, a diary to myself, and it just came out in the second person. I never thought about it at all. The whole experience seemed like a dream, and I felt like I was observing myself in that dream. So the second person gave me the sense of seeing myself from the outside, as a “you.” I suppose a psychologist would say that the second person voice gave me the psychological distance I needed to be able to put the experience down on paper. When my story turned into a book, several people were skeptical about the second person—which is unusual, particularly for a memoir. So I rewrote the entire book in the first person. I just didn’t like it as well. I decided to go back to my first impulse.

Q: How does “the professor” feel about your book? Does he feel you paint an accurate picture of your relationship?


A: Well, the professor doesn’t really read English all that well—our whole affair was conducted in Italian—so I’m not sure. I think he was flattered that I wrote a book about our affair. He was surprised at how much I remembered about our trips. He said reading the book felt like watching a film, where events from his life were replayed as they had happened, and the details he had forgotten came back clearly. The professor was very funny about it: when I asked him how much he wanted to be disguised in the book, he wrote back, joking that if he was going to be the romantic hero in a love story that thousands of American women—divorced or not—were going to read, he definitely wanted to be disguised—“very thinly.” So all in all, I’d say he was amused.

Q: And how do you feel about having your personal life read by strangers? Better yet, how do your parents feel?


A: I suppose that’s the kind of thing one ought to think about before one goes ahead and writes a book like this. I am always jumping into things without realizing all the implications—going to Italy, having an affair, writing a book about it. If I’d thought it through, I probably never would’ve written the book. Take the sex scenes, for example. I needed to write about those intimate moments because they were key to the story, to my sense of sensual awakening. But I am so fundamentally shy about sex—I come from a long line of Puritans—that I practically had to close my eyes and type when it came to those parts. I guess I thought maybe people would close their eyes when they started reading those parts.

When I finished the book, and began worrying about people reading about my personal life, I spoke with an aunt of mine who has uncommonly good sense. She told me not to fret: the only people who are surprised to read about people having sex are their parents; the rest of the world just assumes it happens. As for my parents, they’re good sports, and they’ll definitely close their eyes when they come to the sexy parts.

Q: The European landscapes and foods you describe sound heavenly. How did you adjust to “normal” life back home in San Francisco after each rendezvous with the professor?

A:
Well, San Francisco is not a bad place to live. We have our share of scenery and good food. What was difficult when I returned to San Francisco after seeing the professor was the sudden sense that I was alone. When you’re single for awhile, you get used to it. But when you spend time here and there with someone you care about, you feel his absence when you return home to your own bed. I’m lucky in San Francisco that I have good friends who live nearby, and I work in a collective office with a lively group of writers, so I have a lot of support. But it’s a tough place to be a single woman nearing forty. It helped to know that I had a lover I would see again. I didn’t feel so alone, but sometimes it made me ache.

Q: One of the pivotal moments in the book comes when the professor tells you his wife, also, is having an affair. How did you respond to this news?

A:
The professor was extremely discreet and almost never said anything about his wife. He was always so carefree about other matters of the heart that I never thought that he could feel hurt about love, but it became clear to me that he had—and that, in some way, our encounters meant as much to him as they did to me. I guess I was also somewhat relieved to know that if they had a rather open, very French kind of marriage, it went both ways.

Q: Can you speak to the emotions and rationale in having an affair with a married man, when it was your husband’s infidelities that led to the breakup of your marriage?

A: It is difficult to answer, but I would have to say that relationships are always more complicated than they seem. Nor are they very rational. In a perfect world, no one would ever cheat on their spouse, but we all know that it happens all the time. I think the circumstances are different in every relationship. In the case of my marriage, it wasn’t the other woman that broke us up; it was more that my husband used her as an escape route out of a marriage he was ambivalent about from the beginning.

When adultery occurs in marriages, there are little flings, and then there are grand passions that threaten the whole marriage. I think most marriages can, and do, survive a fling now and then. That’s human nature. One thing I admire about Europeans is that they tend to have discretion about those flings, and never hurt their spouse with information they can gladly live without. The grand passions are the ones to worry about, and I think people have to be clear when something is undermining a whole life together. This isn’t to say that adultery is fine; I think it is probably always a warning light that something is wrong with the relationship that needs to be attended to. But people are different, people make arrangements, and it’s hard to judge every incidence of adultery as immoral. With the professor, clearly he and his wife had come to an understanding, and my occasional rendez-vous with him was not something that affected their marriage one way or another.

Of course, if I got married again, I might feel completely different. We human beings are so complicated in love!

Q: At one point you say to the professor, “Maybe we can relax with each other because we don’t speak each other’s native language.” What impact—good or bad—did the language barriers have?

A:
There was something very liberating about conducting an affair entirely in a second language. It brought everything down to the essentials—hunger, pleasure, appreciation of the immediate sensual world around us. Things are simpler, and funnier, and easier in a second language. All the complicated negotiations and power games that usually go on in a relationship had to be simplified, each of us giving way, and nothing was ever too serious. We had to be nice to each other: neither of us could speak Italian well enough to be subtly cutting, hint at expectations or grievances, or infuse remarks with shades of meaning that might or might not be nasty, as too often happens in relationships. It was all easy, relaxed. It took awhile for us to understand each other better intellectually, but we came to common terms. Having an affair, by the way, really is the best way to learn a foreign language. . . .

Q: Your affair is so open, so European, shall we say, in nature. No strings attached, no pressure for the future. . . . It seems so perfect, and yet, do you think an affair like yours could have happened had you both lived in the same country?

A:
M. once asked me what would happen if he lived in San Francisco. I told him, “you wouldn’t be you.” I was too fragile and scared after my divorce to get involved with someone who was nearby, much less available. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it, because I just didn’t trust men or relationships yet. A far-away affair was perfect, because it helped me feel desirable again, and hopeful about romance. Our affair was a fantasy—we never had a chance to get tired of each other, to worry about schedules, to dislike each other’s friends, to fight over the dishes, to fit each other into our busy lives. We just had simple, romantic times together, and then we parted.

Q: Along the same lines, you write: “You think about American men who jump into sexual intimacy, then panic, afraid you’ll want to get married.” What does this say about our cultures? The expectations of relationships? Men in general?

A:
The happily-ever-after expectations that we tend to have about relationships in the United States can be very oppressive. We believe that there is one perfect person out there for us. Women spend a lot of time worrying about how they can be more perfect, accommodating the man they’re with even at the expense of their own happiness and self-esteem. Men often worry that there’s always the chance they’ll meet someone even more perfect than the one they’re with. That starts a tug-of-war over commitment, which is really more about validating a sense of self than living together forever. You have to take forever day by day. The stakes are very high in relationships, very all-or-nothing. It’s hard to just date without constantly judging whether someone measures up to what is almost always an impossible ideal. One of the things I learned from the professor is to be less judgmental, and to better appreciate people in the moment. I realized that if I were thinking of him as a potential lifetime mate, I’d be constantly critical of him—he smokes, he isn’t very athletic, he can be a little cheap. But I learned how lovely it can be if you just accept people as they are, and not worry about expectations.

Q: The professor brought so many pleasures back into your life. One of the sweetest moments is when you rediscover San Francisco through his eyes. Do you still see the city differently? Do you think you see life differently?

A:
The professor takes an almost childlike joy in exploring the world around him. He was delighted with San Francisco. The city has changed dramatically in the past few years—the influx of dot-com money has pushed out a lot of artists and creative people who give the city its character—but it’s still, in many ways, a magical place. The professor helped me remember that. After spending time with him, I carry some of his sense of wonder with me. There is humor and art and deliciousness to be found all around us in our everyday lives, it’s just a matter of being willing to focus on it at times, to take it in.

Q: This book is very different from your last book, Losing It: False Hopes and Fat Profits in the Diet Industry (Plume), which was a journalistic expose of America’s diet culture. Do the two books have anything in common?

A:
The books are very different—Losing It was a work of investigative journalism, and I suppose you could call An Italian Affair an investigative vacation. Losing It explored why women in this culture are so obsessed with their weight, and how the diet industry exploits their worries. Women will go to extremes, depriving themselves, feeling miserable, to try, and often fail, to fit into an unnatural physical ideal. Both of the books speak to self-acceptance, and to women finding more pleasure in a culture that has told us that indulging in pleasure, whether eating, drinking, vacationing, or having sex with real gusto, is wrong. If women would stop worrying so much about food, and eat more like Italians—with real satisfaction, and not snacking between meals or eating fast food—they would have fewer problems with weight. Both my books also explore questions of body image. In An Italian Affair, one of the ways I expressed my insecurities following my divorce was by feeling self-conscious about my weight. By the end of the book, I was feeling quite cheerful in my body.

Q: What’s next for you and the professor?

A:
The professor always said that we’d see each other again—he wasn’t sure where or how, but we would see each other again. I’m not so sure. I sometimes imagine having tea with him in a Paris café in about ten years, telling stories to each other. I don’t know what’s next for him. I suppose he will continue to teach, write, travel, smoke cigars, and flirt. I don’t know what’s next for me, either. Maybe I’ll fall in love. Maybe I’ll write another book. Probably I’ll learn French.

Author Q&A

Laura Fraser's desktop includes photographs from the time and locations portrayed in her book An Italian Affair, as well as essays on a variety of topics, her favorite Italian recipes, and an Italian phrasebook for lovers.

Praise

Praise

“Sweet, smart. We are smitten from the start.” —O: The Oprah Magazine

“Luscious. . . . Fraser is such a charmer, so smart, honest, observant, incisive and funny, that within a few pages the reader is entirely hers.” –The Washington Post

“A beach book for your brain. . . . A sexy, intellectual read.” –Redbook

“Both a grand travelogue and a thoughtful look at reclaiming independence.” –Cond Nast Traveller

“A deliciously romantic story, made even more captivating by the idea that someone actually experienced it.” –The Times (London)
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Sweet, smart. We are smitten from the start.” —O: The Oprah Magazine

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser, a spicy and highly entertaining feast for the mind and heart.

About the Guide

When Laura Fraser’s husband of one year leaves her for his high school sweetheart, she decides on impulse to take a trip to Italy to soothe her broken heart. An excursion to the island of Ischia lands her face-to-face with a handsome stranger who becomes her lover, and soon her travel companion as well. Over the next few years, Fraser and the mysterious man, whom the reader knows only as a married professor of aesthetics from Paris, take sexy sojourns to picturesque spots across the globe. From Italy, to London, to Morocco, and even to Fraser’s hometown of San Francisco, An Italian Affair is replete with descriptions of the mouthwatering delicacies in which they indulged, the volcanoes and mountains they hiked, and the bustling streets they navigated. But An Italian Affair is not just a romantic travelogue: Fraser neatly intertwines her adventures away from home with her emotional journey away from the pain of her husband’s betrayal (and their subsequent divorce) toward a restored self-esteem and zest for la bella vita.

About the Author

Laura Fraser has written for Salon.com, Vogue, Glamour, Mother Jones, Self, the San Francisco Examiner, Gourmet, and Health, among other publications. She has taught magazine writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University
of California at Berkeley. She lives in San Francisco.

Discussion Guides

1. Why does Fraser choose to use a second-person narrative voice to recount her personal experiences? Does this effectively draw the reader into her personal experiences? How does it affect the reader’s ability to relate to or sympathize with her?

2. How does the epigraph from Boccaccio’s Decameron relate to An Italian Affair?

3. Fraser peppers her story with comparisons between American and Italian men. For instance, she writes, “Italian men, unlike American men, like to flirt even when there’s no chance of any tangible outcome” [p. 64]. In Fraser’s experiences, how do American, Italian, and Parisian men differ in their treatment of and relations with women? Are her criticisms of American men legitimate?

4. As the year during which her ex-husband, Jon, left her comes to a close, Fraser celebrates her progress from depression to the “up-and-about phase” of recovery [p. 58]. What is this recovery process like for Fraser? Does her conversation with Jon in the epilogue [pp. 224–6] bring satisfying closure to her marriage?

5. Referring to the professor, Fraser comments that it is good for her to be in a relationship with someone whose “defects you see but don’t criticize” [p. 217]. Does she learn to apply this lesson in her other relationships, or is that impossible? How would Fraser compare the professor’s defects to Jon’s? Would this be a fair comparison? How might Fraser’s appreciation for the professor be affected if he lived in San Francisco?

6. If Fraser were asked at the beginning of her affair with the professor why her marriage ended, how might she respond? Would she have a different answer if she were asked at the conclusion of her affair? What does each relationship teach Fraser about herself?

7. Is Fraser successful in keeping her growing feelings for the professor in check? Does she prevent herself from falling in love with him? Does Fraser have reason to believe that he is also holding feelings back? How do these checks and balances between the heart and the mind affect a relationship?

8. How is Fraser’s appreciation of San Francisco enhanced by the professor’s visit? If San Francisco can be interpreted as a metaphor for Fraser herself, is the professor’s visit a turning point in Fraser’s voyage of emotional self-recovery?

9. According to the professor, “The problem with Americans . . . is they think a little affair will destroy a marriage. How can they be so claustrophobic? It puts far too much pressure on the marriage. That’s what will ruin a marriage” [p. 36]. How does Fraser’s experience in An Italian Affair cause her to reexamine her views on divorce and marriage and the rules and boundaries that govern each institution? Are the reader’s opinions affected? Are you inclined to judge Fraser favorably or unfavorably? What about Jon or the professor?

10. Compare Fraser’s feelings as a female traveling alone to Ischia [p. 22] with her arrival alone in Morocco [p. 208]. Does her confidence as a lone female traveler evolve over the course of her memoir?

11. Fraser describes her everyday life in San Francisco between the descriptions of her travels, but the reader learns of the particulars of her romantic history as Fraser updates the professor each time they are reunited. Does viewing Fraser’s dating experiences through the eyes of the professor affect the reader’s interpretation of them? Does it affect the reader’s opinion of Fraser?

12. Fraser captures the atmosphere of her travels through language and imagery that appeal to the senses of sight, smell, and taste. Which place did Fraser appear to enjoy the most and why? What spot was most enticing to you and why?

13. What are Fraser’s standards for “la bella vita” [pp. 9, 207, and 220]?

14. How do Fraser’s friendships with women sustain her in ways that her friendships with men do not?

15. Why is the book called An Italian Affair? How does the fact that the professor and Fraser don’t speak each other’s native languages change their relationship? How does speaking Italian together affect their intimacy?

Suggested Readings

Ann Barry, At Home in France: Tales of an American and Her House Abroad; John Berger, To the Wedding; A. S. Byatt, Possession; Nora Ephron, Heartburn; Rita Golden Gelman, Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World; Laurie Gough, Kite Strings of the Southern Cross: A Woman’s Travel Odyssey; Barbara Grizutti Harrison, Italian Days; Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy and Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy; Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient; Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love; Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist.

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