Lost Hearts in Italy: A Novel

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9780007172870: Lost Hearts in Italy: A Novel

The Italian phrase Mai due senza tre–“never two without three”–forms the basis of Andrea Lee’s spellbinding novel of betrayal. Sophisticated and richly told, Lost Hearts in Italy reveals a trio caught in the grip of desire, deception, and remorse.

When Mira Ward, an American, relocates to Rome with her husband, Nick, she looks forward to a time of exploration and awakening. Young, beautiful, and in love, Mira is on the verge of a writing career, and giddy with the prospect of living abroad.

On the trip over, Mira meets Zenin, an older Italian billionaire, who intrigues Mira with his coolness and worldly mystique. A few weeks later, feeling idle and adrift in her new life, Mira agrees to a seemingly innocent lunch with Zenin and is soon catapulted into an intense affair, which moves beyond her control more quickly than she intends. Her job as a travel writer allows clandestine trysts and opulent getaways with Zenin to Paris, Monte Carlo, London, and Venice, and over the next few years, now the mother of a baby daughter, she struggles between resisting and relenting to this man who has such a hold on her. As her marriage erodes, so too does Mira’s sense of self, until she no longer resembles the free spirit she was on her arrival in the
on her arrival in the Eternal City.

Years later, Mira and Nick, now divorced and remarried to others, look back in an attempt to understand their history, while a detached Zenin assesses his own life and his role in the unlikely love triangle. Each recounts the past, aided by those witness to their failure and fallout.
An elegant, raw, and emotionally charged read, Lost Hearts in Italy is a classic coming-of-age story in which cultures collide, innocence dissolves, and those we know most intimately remain foreign to us.

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About the Author:

Andrea Lee was born in Philadelphia and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University. She is a former staff writer for The New Yorker, and her fiction and nonfiction writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The New York Times Book Review. She is the author of Russian Journal, the novel Sarah Phillips, and the short story collection Interesting Women. She lives with her husband and two children in Turin, Italy.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1 1

MIRA

P

2004 • telephone

The call comes three or four times a year. Always in the morning, when Mira’s husband and children have left the house, and she is at work in her study, in the dangerous company of words—words that are sometimes docile companions and at other times bolt off like schizophrenic lovers and leave you stranded on a street corner somewhere. There are moments when Mira, abandoned in the middle of a paragraph, sits glaring furiously out past the computer at the chestnut trees in her hillside garden and the industrial smudge of Turin below in the distance and the Alps beyond. Then the phone rings, and she breaks her own rule to grab it like a lifeline. And eerily enough, as if from hundreds of miles away he has sensed her bafflement, her moment of weakness, it is often Zenin, a man who once wrecked part of her life.

Oh, not Zenin himself, not at first. His billionaire’s paranoia is too strong for that. He never calls her on a cell phone, always from his office, never from one of his houses, from his yacht, from his jet. The call is placed by any one of a bevy of young Italian secretaries, the kind who announce their names in bright telemarketers’ voices. Pronto, it’s Sabrina. Marilena. Or Veronica. It’s different each time, but always the kind of aspirational Hollywood-style moniker that in Italian sounds slightly whorish.

È la dottoressa Ward? È proprio lei? The secretaries insist on asking twice if it is Mira. And they love her title, which is Italian grandiosity for a simple college degree. Zenin, the parvenu, loves it too, loves having a cultured woman to disturb. If anyone else answers, husband or children or maid, the girls have instructions to hang up. And after that, Sabrina or Marilena or Veronica always inquires, with arch emphasis, whether it is convenient for her to talk. Convenient as interpreted by a drug dealer or a stool pigeon, or of course a philandering wife.

Sometime during that familiar question, Mira’s body undergoes a swift unwelcome transformation: melting between the legs, throat suddenly garotted by an ancient knot of tears. Outdated reactions of the body, whose memory is longer than that of the heart.

Feelings left over from a time years earlier, when she was very young and lived in Rome. When she was still married to her first husband, an American as young and new to Europe as she was. Married and deep in adultery with Zenin, the Venetian tycoon whose cold sensuality and provincial vulgarity represented, to the girl she was back then, everything mysterious and desirable about Italy. A robber’s cave of wonders she was desperate to explore. It was a time when the dye of secrecy darkened every part of her life, and with a mixture of shame and longing she used to pray for calls like these. Because every call meant an assignation, and Zenin, at that point, was her religion.

Nowadays she hasn’t seen Zenin for nearly ten years. And when she realizes who is calling, the older Mira simply says to herself: bastard. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian. Bastardo. A toothless insult, but one that translates exactly.

But she doesn’t hang up. She always talks to Zenin.

This time, as usual, he asks what she is doing.

Working.

Working? Writing? Writing what—love poems? His familiar voice, with its Veneto accent, is teasing, that of an uncle talking to a beloved but difficult niece. And as always, it is surprisingly small, as the voice of the conscience is said to be. Not high, but faint and dry, as if lacking an essential fluid.

No, I’m writing an article about a cheese festival.

A cheese festival! Oh yes, laughs Zenin. I had almost forgotten how greedy you are. I’m sure you’re fat now, living in Turin with all the fonduta and truffles. Fat and badly dressed. A plump little provincial madamin. That’s what happens with a Piedmontese husband, neh? By the way, is he faithful?

Faithful enough for me.

A good wifely answer. And what about you, darling?

Don’t you wish you knew, says Mira evenly.

She can picture him clearly in his vast company headquarters in the industrial hinterland of Rovigo, a few hundred miles east across Piedmont and Lombardy. Veneto lowland country, where the great floodplain of the Brenta and the Po spreads from Petrarch’s green hills to the Adriatic in an expanse of cornfields, brick villages, grim rural factories, and the occasional lunar beauty of a Palladian facade. There, in his element, sits Zenin, tall, morose, and badly dressed, exuding his heavy aura of power over an acre of desk where he directs an empire that for children around the world is a byword for fun, a constantly evolving civilization of miniature toys and plastic gadgets, free gifts that lure them further into the sweet Cockaigne land of cereals and snacks. Mira winces sometimes at breakfast, watching her sons squabble over Zenin’s prizes.

I’d give everything I own to know, says Zenin. I’d love to fuck you again, Dottoressa Ward. Let’s meet next week. In Paris. Or New York. If you can get away for four days, come to Mauritius. There’s a new hotel there you’ll like. Just choose—I’ll arrange everything.

What is interesting is that Zenin’s voice doesn’t change when he says the word scopare—fuck. His voice takes on an erotic tremor only when he says arrange everything.

Mira agrees, as she always does. Va bene—all right—has a ceremonial sound. Like the close of a church service, a sign of acceptance and submission. She even adds a hint of comradely amusement, because after all this time she understands that Zenin has no power over her. She listens to him promise to call on Monday with plans and then puts down the phone. Knowing she won’t hear from him for months.

And as usual she sits turning the mystery over in her mind. Why Zenin bothers to go through this threadbare ritual. Why she lets him.

Her eyes run over the ranks of photographs crowded on the shelf near her desk. Mira and her present husband, Vanni, hamming it up in front of the Taj Mahal. School shots of her eight-year-old and six-year-old sons, Stefano and Zoo. Her daughter, Maddie, in a white commencement dress, brandishing a bouquet. The jacket photo for her first travel book, a dozen years earlier, where she peers rather belligerently out of a grotto in Matera. Boisterous family groups with scuba gear, on skis. Their Turin villa in the throes of restoration, the garden full of rubble, medieval brick doorways open to the weather. Her parents and sister, yellowed by seventies celluloid, waving from the steps of her childhood house in Philadelphia.

A defensive wall of memories, a gallery of life on two continents. The life she rebuilt in northern Italy after she left Rome and the ruins of that first marriage, that love affair. Yet nothing is a complete defense against Zenin. She thinks of an early story by Moravia called “Madness,” in which a rich Roman housewife amuses herself by pretending to an old flame, who lives far away, that she is an insane recluse. They have long telephone conversations in which she describes her ordinary family days as a series of hallucinations.

In the same way, when Zenin phones, the rest of the world recedes. They alone are real, two points of brightness connected by sound waves and the past. But as the connection is established, like lights on an electronic map, she imagines a third point lighting up somewhere else. Mai due senza tre, as the Italian saying goes, never two without three. The essential third point is her first husband, Nick, Zenin’s former rival. Hidden somewhere in the glass and steel corporate wilderness of Canary Wharf or Wall Street or the Bund in Shanghai. Mira never hears from him but she gets regular news from their daughter, Maddie, of his life in London, his family, his career in international finance. Nick is somehow always present at these encounters in space, where all times are one time.

It was always less like a triangle than a game, she thinks. One of those annoying electronic games her boys play, where computer-generated civilizations battle each other, or the kind of ancient board combat that people claim dates back to the Olmecs or Hittites or sunken Atlantis. A game with a dozen shifting alliances. Young married couple against the old libertine. Lovers against husband. Rich against not rich. Europe against America. A game of skill that at its hottest and hardest should have concluded, according to a military code of honor, or to the rules of storytelling, with an execution. At least a suicide. Except that the three of them obstinately remained alive. All three of them, Zenin, Nick, and Mira, have one thing in common besides a susceptibility to passion. And that is a stubborn, rather bourgeois attachment to life and its consolations.

So now, nearly two decades later, they’re all alive, widely separated, no longer hagridden by lust and jealousy, grown older and lazier, less exacting about their pleasures. Zenin, Mira reminds herself, is actually a grandfather. Nick has a beautiful second wife and two girls besides their own daughter, Maddie.

She herself is so immersed in the controlled chaos of family and work that she barely notices she is happy. The only thing that revives their game, their three-sided connection, is the empty liturgy of these phone calls from Zenin, which recall a moment in time when raw excess made them a casual aristocracy, apart from the rest of the world.

It’s nostalgia, thinks Mir...

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