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564 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Elizabeth MacDonald’s A House of Cards

Reviewed by Linda Lappin

Portia Publishing

Cover of A House of Cards by Elizabeth MacDonald

Italy has always been a magnet for English-speaking writers from all over the globe, a land eroticized by pagan gods, lush with sensuous discoveries offered by its climate, food, art, architecture, design, fashion. To say nothing of the natural beauty of its landscapes compressed within such a narrow strip of earth. In Italy, every sense, every physical need has its corresponding art form. This is what strikes the traveler, the tourist, the expat who settles down here. But no enchantment lasts forever and when the spell is broken, reality rushes in. The rusting chains and hinges, moldering stones, and rotting wood holding up the dream collapse beneath our weight.

Expat fiction and memoirs in general are concerned with the tension between an idealized vision of a place and the realization that its attractions are corrupt, requiring a daily adjustment. This displacement and adjustment is the focus of a beautifully written collection of short stories, A House of Cards by Elizabeth MacDonald, an Irish writer who makes her home in Pisa, previously nominated for the prestigious Frank O’Connor award.

Most of these stories deal with couples and confrontation: the friction between husbands and wives of different cultural backgrounds or the distance that insinuates itself between a husband and wife while traveling or living abroad. In the title story, the foreign wife of an Italian engineer wistfully remembers a former lover and her own aspirations which she has given up to become the perfect housewife. In “Wisteria,” the modest American wife of an orchestra conductor finds herself the subject of scrutiny by a wealthy, eccentric, and very attractive countess who may have designs on her husband, or may simply envy her marital happiness. In “Fireworks,” a girl frustrated with her lover’s elusiveness leaves their hotel in Pisa on an adventure in the city alone and meets a swarthy stranger who is not at all what he seems.

In the preface to her book, MacDonald clues us in as to the theme of these stories:

After umpteen years living in Italy have I still not fitted in enough? Have I fitted in too much? What is home anyway? There was a moment in which I stopped seeing the Italians as so many foreigners and started seeing myself through their eyes: the solitary foreigner.

Many of the beloved trappings of fiction and travel writing set in Italy appear in these stories: we get rich descriptions of the Tuscan landscape and its architecture: villas, gardens, old farmhouses, dusty, dark churches on summer days, reminiscent of Shirley Hazzard in The Evening of the Holiday. MacDonald writes:

...the cries of the swifts outside in the piazza break through the barrier of silence. The urgency in their shrillness is unsettling. Her eyes run the length of the nave, then rise to the rose window, as the hairs on her arm, like sea-anemones brushed by water, avert the faintest touch of air.

Yet, those sensuous promises remain unfulfilled. The foreigners in her stories remain isolated and out of sync with their environment. MacDonald warns us that traveling and living too far from home causes a loss of identity. The only solution is to revel for a moment in the immediate sensation of being there, absorbing the atmosphere through the pores of our skin, which MacDonald allows us to do in these finely-crafted stories.

SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Linda Lappin

is a poet, essayist, travel writer, and the author of three novels: The Etruscan (Wynkin de Worde, 2004), Katherine’s Wish (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2008), and Signatures in Stone: a Bomarzo Mystery (Pleasure Boat Studio, 2013), winner of the 2014 Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense Writing.

Her most recent book is The Soul of Place, A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci (Travelers’ Tales, 2015). Works in progress include Postcards from a Tuscan Interior (a memoir) and Missing Madonna in Montparnasse (a novel about the life of Jeanne Hébuterne).

Lappin holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born in Tennessee, she now lives in Rome and divides her time between Italy and the USA.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury