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Book Review

Past, present, and future in the Eternal City

Anthony Doerr found Rome's contradictions compelling. Anthony Doerr found Rome's contradictions compelling. (Jerry Bauer)

Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World
By Anthony Doerr
Scribner, 210 pp., $24

In early 2004, award-winning writer Anthony Doerr ("The Shell Collector") was doubly blessed. On the same day he and wife Shauna came home from a Boise, Idaho, hospital after the birth of twin sons, a letter arrived announcing that he had won a one-year fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. "Four Seasons in Rome" is a beautifully crafted memoir about Doerr's often confusing, always eye-opening experiences as a new parent in a strange, wonderful city.

Doerr, who initially speaks no Italian, gets off to a bad start. Confronted with the chaos of an Italian bakery in his first days in Rome, he is shell-shocked: "The crowd has driven me into a corner. Men who have just entered are getting their orders taken, passing bills forward." A perplexed Doerr flees the bakery without a single roll. Later, he goes into a grocery store seeking tomato sauce, but his Italian is so awful that he unknowingly requests "grapefruit sauce." The grocer looks at him quizzically and then hands over a jar of tomato sauce, which Doerr hungrily embraces.

If the author's Italian is hopeless, his English is not. He captures the wonder and madness that is Rome with prose as finely cut and sensuous as the finest Renaissance sculpture. Here's Doerr describing his neighborhood: "Trastevere is full of medieval houses and clotheslines and drinking fountains that appear to be permanently turned on. Little cars are parked in impossible places." When he buys vegetables at an outdoor market, Doerr vividly paints the scene: "Especially in wet weather the market is luminous: the air slightly smoky, the stalls seemingly huddled together against the chill, the emerald piles of spinach, the orange pyramids of carrots."

Neither Doerr nor his wife gets much rest, mostly due to the erratic sleeping and feeding habits of their twins. The boys take their first steps in Rome; neighbors coo and dote on them whenever the family leaves the apartment. The memoir's most anxious moments come when Shauna gets sick and is rushed to a hospital. Doerr stays up late worrying about his wife's health, and wonders whether he's capable of raising the twins alone if she dies. These anxious moments will resonate with any parent.

Doerr tries to write fiction in Rome, but his progress is halting at best. When he travels to London and Amsterdam to promote his latest novel, he's more concerned with his role as a parent than his life as a celebrated author: "My heart is elsewhere. This, I suppose, is what it means to look after two babies: any attempt to make you feel as if you were at the center of something is hopelessly hilarious."

What Doerr ultimately finds compelling about Rome is its contradictions, its colorful blending of old and new, sacred and profane: "Something about this city exacerbates contrasts . . . a Levi's billboard rippling on the façade of a four-hundred-year-old church, a drunk sleeping on the tram in $300 shoes." After the death of Pope John Paul II (referred to in the book's subtitle), he notes street hawkers selling "John Paul dinner plates, John Paul T-shirts, John Paul heads molded from plastic."

Doerr does not pretend to understand the breathtaking beauty or proud history of Rome, admitting that one year is hardly enough to scratch the centuries-old surface. "I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman." Yet he has succeeded in writing a beautiful paean to Rome, a passionately rendered love letter that will appeal to anyone interested in the Eternal City.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer from Dorchester.