Books to read if you miss Rome and Italy or if you’re planning a trip
Italy is known for its powerful past, and its present enchantment. Its fascination has attracted distinguished writers of literature, and a magical backdrop to their books. From light-hearted romance novels to dense historical fiction, Rome especially has captured the imagination of just about any genre.
Whether you want your mind to be transported to the Eternal City, or you’re been back and forth and need a biased reason to visit, allow the list below to accompany you…
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Starting with the best-known book-turned-film starring Julia Roberts, Eat, Pray, Love is often the go-to for people looking for their own self-discovery. Written as a memoir during a mid-life crisis, Gilbert radically undertook a year-long journey starting in Italy, then to India, and finally in Indonesia. Millions of women have fallen for Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir describing her crisis, but why?
The three words correspond to the book’s three sections, which thus refer to the year of Gilbert’s life spent in three different countries – Italy, India and Indonesia.
“It wasn’t so much that I wanted to thoroughly explore the countries…I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two. It was only later . . . that I noticed the happy coincidence that all these countries begin with the letter I. A fairly auspicious sign, it seemed, on a voyage of self-discovery.”
After achieving what society has termed “success”, Gilbert realises that she is not suited for the life that she has cultivated.
“Wasn’t I proud of all we’d accumulated – the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the friends and the picnics and the parties…? So why did I feel like none of it resembled me?”
Whilst in Italy, she learns to speak Italian and the “art of pleasure”, healing her body through food. She visits Rome, Tuscany, Bologna, Naples and finally Sardinia. Elizabeth soaks in the culture through admiration of Rome’s ruins without a single step into a museum. My personal favorite aspect of Rome is the easiness and joy simply from walking around. Falling upon Largo di Torre Argentina or even the Trevi Fountain, located as if by accident, are what makes Rome so special. Gaining 23 pounds in the Eternal City, Elizabeth Gilbert was the happiest she had been in years.
The final two trips are to an Ashram in India, and to Bali, Indonesia. Radically different to her trip to Rome, Gilbert learns the art of meditation, prayer, and love. Her struggles with the failure of her mediations and her nightmares of her past gradually lift as she meets interesting people who question her definition of “challenge”. Whilst in Bali, Gilbert inevitably finds romance. She completes her healing and is constantly reflecting on her happiness and newfound purpose.
Eat, Pray, Love was met with some backlash; the monologue of a privileged American, shallow observations, and a narcissistic flaunt of self-indulgence. But many cynics miss the true point of the inspirational memoir – it was for Elizabeth herself and not for others, and the self-motivation to learn, grow, and recover. Gilbert is honest, raw and talks to the reader like her friend – guiding them through each trip. Women in particular tend to enjoy this type of literature, as it alleviates the feeling of pressure and hardship. This is not a book about self-help or instruction, but a recollection of experiences. Any light book about spirituality, balance and pleasure is bound to leave the reader inspired. Her trip to Rome is particularly enjoyable and sets the city in a romantic light that has been hard to match in popular reading culture.
Want to travel around like Elizabeth Gilbert?
Wander around the fashionable areas surrounding the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain – “Trevi” and “Campo Marzio”. Roam through the tangled streets around the Jewish quarter and the Pantheon. Take in the views from the Gianicolo Hill and of Piazza del Popolo from Rome’s stunning and third-largest park Villa Borghese. Perhaps also study Italian in Scuola Leonardo Da Vinci.
Must-Read Books About Rome
The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia
In stark contrast to Eat, Pray, Love is the 1947 publication of The Woman of Rome by author Alberto Moravia. Moravia was Italy’s leading novelist and was often known for his exploration of texts about modern sexuality and society.
The Woman of Rome was written and narrated in the time of Mussolini’s dictatorship, and would go on to be one of Moravia’s most well-known pieces of work. Alberto Moravia’s passionate novel is skilfully chronicled by Adriana, an educated young woman living with her mother in a small flat in a poor part of Rome, both sewing to make their living. Neither have much fortune, but Adriana’s beauty captures the attention of important men, and the fine line between the innocent accepting of gifts to prostitution is progressively crossed.
As a prostitute, she is predominantly involved with three men who fall for her to the point of their own downfall. They each have competing political ideologies, and can each be interpreted to represent the conflicts of political interest throughout Fascist Italy. These three men, alongside a side-story of murder, each lead up the final climax of the book.
The Woman of Rome does not put war-torn Italy in her best light, nor is it a light-read. But Moravia’s art is an insight into the tragedy of lower-class Rome throughout Mussolini’s power. The way that Alberto Moravia gets inside the mindset of a young girl is admirable; the honesty, the ongoing “stream of consciousness”, and the simple dialogue each lends itself to become a poetic prose of both misery and hope. As Moravia incorporates the female soul of Adriana, we too, become her as we read her story. Personally, I saw the story more centred around Adriana than its backdrop of fascism and poverty; her philosophical and explicit reflections add to the spiritual tones and dark atmosphere of the book. Despite being written in 1945, The Woman of Rome could have been written yesterday – it is disturbing yet heart-wrenching, intense yet passionate.
“And we all know love is a glass which makes even a monster appear fascinating.”
The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club by Marlena de Blasi
Despite not actually being set in Rome, I had to include this book in the list of favorites because reading it actually motivated me to turn my Italian dream into reality. The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club is set above the Umbrian hills of Orvieto – “’the green heart of Italy”, in a neglected stone house. Umbria is a central region just north of Rome and south of Tuscany, known for its foraged truffles and wine. This story in turn contrasts with “The Woman of Rome”, providing humor and enjoyment out of Marlena de Blasi’s cliché yet unique version of the enviable “Italian Dream”.
The light and the heart-felt story brings together the lives of five women: Marlena, Miranda, Ninnucia, Paolina and Gilda, who bring their colorful histories to life as they cook, eat, drink and recount their tragic experiences to their hospitable friends.
Together, they create many rich and flavorsome dishes that leave the reader challenged by the intense desire to join them… a few of the recipes used are incidentally written at the back of the book (including chocolate pasta!) From wild asparagus, to red-wine pasta, the life that the food brings to the book is astonishing – celebrating local produce that is prepared purely with love. Paragraphs and pages are dedicated to cooking of the dishes, and behind each recipe is its corresponding story.
“The only sauce is olive oil – green as sun-struck jade – splashed in small lustrous puddles, through which one skates the flesh, the fat, the bones, the potatoes, the bread”
From abandonment and mafia grudges, to unmarried mothers and orphans – each woman contributes something that she has – whether its bread and oil, or the emotional and raw exposure of her history. Marlena de Blasi emphasizes the joys and benefits of communal cooking and eating, that consequently allow for interesting and inspiring stories and possible repressions to be restored. With ages ranging from fifty-two to eighty, these women are linked solely by culture, empathy, and tradition. But there is no desire for sympathy here, each woman is simply telling her tale.
The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club is the type of book that makes you want to sit with your legs up overlooking the hills of Rome and Tuscany with a glass of wine and a book. The inspiring story is one of friendship, romance, trust, and love – whilst highlighting the often forgotten importance of community and compassion.
If you weren’t dreaming of traveling in Italy before you start reading, I guarantee you will be by the time you’re done. Happy travels!
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