Anthony Doerr can paint a scene with anyone. His careful word choices, understanding of the human psyche, and his ability to vary his writing cadence to fit the mood, are all superbly on display in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See.”
Add to that list dry humor, which he combines with all the above in “Four Seasons in Rome.” Watch him, and feel for him, as he tries to order groceries in his beginner’s Italian. See Roman grandmothers fawn over the twin boys in his stroller as he and his wife walk the crowded streets.
To say that Doerr is a “writer’s writer,” means that people who want to hone their own story-writing skills should read him carefully and pay attention to his use of the language. Soak in his work until it oozes back into ones’ own writing.
That was my purpose in exploring this, Doerr’s project to show us the Eternal City in his words. One of my favorite passages is brilliant in its simplicity. It is Doerr’s description of what the family did at the 260-year old Fountain of Trevi, replete with its many statues and carvings of mythological figures, and famous to many Americans from the movies “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Roman Holiday” (even Sabrina the Teenaged Witch made a movie at this fountain…)
“We lean over the rail; we hurl pennies at the gods.”
Crafting great fiction was not Doerr’s intent here. “Four Seasons in Rome” reads like a private journal, edited intentionally for public consumption. The Doerr family’s four seasons in Rome were a significant time full of challenge and discovery. Doerr shares that significance with us. His time in Rome was marked by a papal death and coronation; a brutally hot summer, friendly Romans, and occasional reminders that Yankees aren’t necessarily all that popular even in countries such as Italy that are among the U.S.’s closest allies.
“Home base” during the Doerr’s year in Rome was a hillside apartment with easy access to sweeping views of Rome. The city comes to life through Doerr’s descriptions of what he can see from the balcony; of the fountains, the food. The crowds, cathedrals, and crazy traffic.
Doerr sprinkles his journal with his own inner thoughts about life, family and existence as he ponders and reacts to the spectacle of Rome. These musings can be thought of as connection points to his novels, which explore similar themes. He presents his own ideas about God and ultimate reality gently; often in the form of questions rather than answers. It serves to give this work depth. For instance:
“If we creatures are on earth only to extend the survival of our species, if nature only concerns itself with reproduction, if we are supposed to raise our kids to breeding age and then wither and slide toward death, then why does the world bother to be so astoundingly, intricately, breathtakingly beautiful?”
Crazy, disorganized, delicious and delirious Rome is the most memorable beautiful thing that emerges from this journal. Unlike his native Boise, Rome is something that could not possibly happen in America. That is both America’s blessing, and Americans’ misfortune.