Rome has been very much in the public eye these past few days, what with all the goings-on in the Sistine Chapel. It needed not the dramatic abdication of one pope and the election of another, however, for my attention to be caught by the Eternal City. Ever since I first visited Rome in the summer of 2005 and fell in love with the Spanish Steps and the washing hanging from the windows of the houses in the Trastevere, the city has been branded on my memory and heart.
So when, three weeks ago, my youngest brother and his girlfriend spent a long weekend in Rome, I determined not to be envious – Rome in February could not be that great, I reasoned. But a snapshot of them sunning themselves on a bench on the Forum swiftly disposed of my virtuous intentions. Suddenly I longed for Italy. Oh, for Roman sunshine and Roman voices, instead of wet snow and chilly winds!
I had to be content with the next best thing: being an armchair traveller…
Rome, in the 1950s. In the vibrant neighbourhood of the Trastevere, Serafina keeps house and takes care of her two younger sisters while their mother earns a meager living as a prostitute. Though the flat is cramped, not to mention sadly lacking in indoor plumbing, and feeding the family is sometimes a bit of a challenge, Serafina’s life is a happy one. Whenever she and her sisters have any spare time, they roam the streets and piazzas of Rome, busking for ice-cream money. Sometimes, there’s even enough money for movie tickets, and the sisters treat themselves to the latest Mario Lanza film. Serafina, in particular, loves the handsome Hollywood film star and singer, and often drives the neighbours mad by listening to his records for hours on end.
But the happy insouciance of childhood is coming to an end: Serafina is almost twenty and her mother is grooming her to follow in her footsteps, a prospect that fills Serafina with dismay. With no education (she was taken out of school at the age of fourteen) and no qualifications, Serafina doesn’t see any way out.
Then comes the exciting news that her beloved Mario Lanza is moving to Rome with his family. And in a wholly unexpected turn of events, Serafina finds herself working in his household. Hardly daring to believe her luck, Serafina is determined that her employer should not regret his decision to take her on. Soon her entire life revolves around the Lanza family. But her deep admiration for Mario and her growing affection for his wife Betty are mingled with concern. For behind the glittering façade of glossy magazine photographs, glamorous parties, and holidays abroad lies another reality: Mario’s alcoholism, which is taking its toll on his health, his career, and his marriage; Betty’s bouts of depression, which cause her to retreat to her darkened bedroom for days on end, refusing to swallow anything but the pills she takes with increasing frequency; and four spoilt and confused children, caught between the two.
The years pass and Serafina is still devotedly serving the Lanzas. But there finally comes a time when she must decide where she belongs: with the family she left behind in the Trastevere? With the Lanza household, wherever its fortunes may take her? Or with Pepe, the talented and temperamental young chef who wants to marry her, and with whom she could start a life of her own?
When in Rome is a pleasant enough book to read, though in no way remarkable. Serafina is a little too effaced as a heroine: she gives the impression of being no more than a convenient means for the author of describing the Lanza household from the inside. But then, of course, the real hero of the book is not Serafina but Mario Lanza himself, and it is when depicting both the glamour and the painful struggle with addiction that characterized his life – but also that of many other Hollywood stars of the fifties – that the novel is most (if still only moderately) successful. The bottom line is that the main merit of the novel is in bringing a largely forgotten artist once more to the attention of the public.
© Florence Berlioz 2013