Treasured by many readers for her 22 (and counting) mystery novels featuring the Venetian policeman Commissario Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon is also a practiced writer of sharply observed commentary about a range of subjects. My Venice and Other Essays collects some of these short and incisive pieces for the first time.
An American who has lived in Venice for 30 years, Leon straddles these two disparate cultures with a dexterous balance of affection and acerbity only afforded the perceptive expatriate. Leon clearly loves her adopted city, but she is not so pie-eyed as to overlook—and report to often hilarious effect—its idiosyncratic imperfections: dealing with a snail-like bureaucracy as her ancient flat crumbles, witnessing all manner of detritus furtively dumped into canals, enduring an aged, inconsiderate neighbor’s blaring television (and plotting how to kill off said irritant in one of her crime novels). Retreating to a house in the country, she encounters all sorts of singularly Italian critters—human and otherwise—including an attentive chicken, a wayward cat and a not particularly intelligent mole.
Moving beyond Italy, Leon is often less tolerant, but no less mordant, in her assessments of the U.S., particularly its foreign policy, militarism (something she witnesses up close as a teacher at a military base), and consumerism. Yet, there are endearing portraits of the somewhat eccentric members of her American family and a sprinkling of sweet childhood memories to soften her mounting discomfort with her native land. She also offers a scathing appraisal of Saudi Arabia, where she taught at one time.
An unabashed opera lover, Leon includes a handful of snappy pieces on the pursuit of that art form. She closes the collection with some thoughts on writing—including Suggestions on Writing the Crime Novel (“I refuse to call it ‘literature,’” she writes self-deprecatingly). One particularly arresting piece contrasts the life and death of Princess Diana to the fate of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth.
My Venice and Other Essays might fail to register on the radar of those unfamiliar with Leon’s fiction, which would be a pity. Savoring these short and engaging pieces is akin to sharing a latte at a Venetian café with an entertaining, opinionated, intelligent friend.