Genre: General fiction
Michael and Lizzie are chic, literary New Yorkers: he a celebrated playwright and novelist, she a journalist. While their professional reputations may not be what they once were, they still consider themselves sophisticated and superior to Lizzie’s ex-boyfriend Finn and his beautiful but aloof wife, Taylor, who live in Maine. And yet, the two couples are, in theory, friends.
When Lizzie organises for the four of them, plus Finn and Taylor’s ten-year-old daughter, Snow, to holiday in the Sicilian town of Siracusa, Michael assumes the trip is an excuse for Lizzie and Finn to rekindle their old romance. However, as the trip unfolds, the friends discover that they don’t know each other so well as they think. Indeed, it appears the sea air may be doing them and their marriages good, until an unexpected visitor checks into their hotel.
Meanwhile, shy and silent Snow, observes the shifting dynamics between the couples, occasionally acting out in unexpected and alarming ways.
Siracusa (Blue Rider Press, Jul. 2016) is a taut exploration of marriage, middle-age, desire and deception set on the majestic yet treacherous shores of the Ionian Sea.
Ephron is prolific, but while I’ve seen some of the films she’s written screenplays for (most notably You’ve Got Mail), Siracusa is the first of her novels I’ve read.
I was drawn to Siracusa because it sounded a little Highsmith-esque: an idyllic setting, secrets stirring, tensions rising within the group and the promise of tragedy looming. It’s got all the elements of a cracking read.
Better still, the prose is smart and taut, with an ease of flow that makes for excellent beach reading. The story is split between the four principal adults, and each narrates with a clear and distinct voice. While the overlap between each character’s interpretation of events occasionally slows the pace, it’s a worthwhile compromise to gain insight into their various perspectives and inner worlds.
Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor are each alluring yet repugnant in their own way, and while none are particularly likeable, all are intriguing. However, I fear this may be where Ephron loses some of her readers. Early in the piece, Lizzie likens Michael to Bret Easton Ellis and muses (rather cruelly) that: ‘Writers like Ellis never leave New York City (well, in his case, unless they move to Los Angeles to further their disintegration) because the only people who know who they are live in Manhattan.’ To my mind, Ephron’s four principals appeared as characters from a Brat Pack novel by Ellis or one of his contemporaries, all grown up. But Brat Pack is an acquired taste. I’m a fan. And I was delighted to see Ephron nod towards that potent mix of nihilistic despair and glittering excess. On one level, her characters are extraordinarily entitled, obnoxious and detestable, and I awaited their downfall with gleeful anticipation. On another, they’re vulnerable and sympathetic: startled and disillusioned to find themselves on the threshold of middle age with youthful promise stalling to regret.
According to the Goodreads blurb, ‘Siracusa unfolds with the pacing of a psychological thriller and delivers an unexpected final act that none can see coming.’ I found this a tad misleading. The story is narrated in past tense, and the final act is, in fact, heavily foreshadowed (but no matter: the ‘how’ is far more intriguing than the ‘what’). More than that, while it has the tense mood and ominous foreboding of a psychological thriller, it doesn’t share the genre’s heady pace. Rather, the narrative lingers over domestic details and drifts into reverie, with the characters pausing to reflect on memories and anecdotes. This isn’t a criticism. In a story that’s primarily an exploration of long-term relationships and regret, it’s entirely appropriate.
Overall, Siracusa makes for an intimate and compelling read that will appeal to those who like their protagonists flawed and their stories infused with slow, simmering tension.
Thank you to Blue Rider Press for providing a copy of Siracusa in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up three critical issues and eleven advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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