When I was eight months pregnant with our first child, my husband quit his job (in the middle of a recession) and we moved to a new state where he enrolled in graduate school. A lot of people thought we were crazy.
So when I heard that this memoir was about a couple who moved to Rome for a year with their infant twin boys for the husband to pursue a writing grant, I knew I needed to read this book.
Because it is crazy–starting a new life in a foreign country, with twin boys who barely sleep (and almost never at the same time). But when someone offers you the chance of a lifetime, how can you say no? I know I would have had regrets if we had given up on the grad school opportunity in order to have a more “normal” life, and I’m sure Anthony Doerr and his wife would have regretted turning down the opportunity to live in Rome for a year in order to have a more “normal” first year with their twins in Iowa. Crazy is sometimes good.
I loved this memoir. I loved that it was written by Anthony Doerr (author of the magnificent, Pulitzer prize winning All the Light We Cannot See)–and that it was the manuscript of that particular book that he was working on during his time in Rome. I loved the clear, powerful prose that he uses, and the moments of wonder that are scattered throughout the book.
The descriptions of the early months of parenthood in this book resonated deeply with me. I didn’t have twins, but I had a difficult, refluxy baby who cried inconsolably and wouldn’t sleep. Doerr’s descriptions of the utter exhaustion, the middle-of-the-night eerie wakefulness, the lapses in concentration–they struck me powerfully. He communicates the experience of overwhelmed fatigue and near despair coupled with the beautiful moments of joy and tenderness that make it all worth it. His love for his sons is very tangible in these pages.
I was also very struck by Doerr’s descriptions of Rome and his transition to living there. I could feel the tensions of adjusting to a new country–the sense of both disorientation and excitement, and the moments of complete confusion coupled with moments of discovery and wonder. He shares his frustrations with the language–the way he muddles through superficial conversations without the vocabulary to go deeper, and the moment he discovers that he has more Italian words to talk about their baby stroller than to purchase food for a meal.
One of my favorite things about traveling in Europe is the history–the sense of ancient things hidden away beneath the ground I’m walking on. Doerr focuses on this aspect of European travel as well. I particularly loved this description, of a trip he and his family took to the Italian countryside: “Out here in Umbria, perhaps even more so than in Rome, you begin to get a sense of how long Italy has been home to humans. Everywhere we walk there are centuries-old groves and sleep-soaked farmhouses and ruins of walls: I feel as though we might start memories up from the fields as we might startle bevies of quail back home.” His beautiful prose captured a great deal of my own experience as an American travelling in Europe.
It’s a beautiful memoir, especially for anyone who is a parent or who has made a life decision that other people found to be crazy. There’s a love of life and a sense of wonder that pervades this book, which made me want to pack my suitcase and fly to a new part of the world.