“Like most of the events in my life, the thought of assembling this book came to me accidentally,” Donna Leon notes in the preface to her memoir, Wandering Through Life. Leon, the author of the long-running Guido Brunetti detective series, has perfectly captured that serendipitous nature in the personal essays that make up Wandering Through Life.
The memoir runs mostly chronologically, beginning with her childhood in New Jersey, where she lived on her grandfather’s farm. Leon is conversational and self-deprecating: “My brother and I get our almost total lack of ambition from [our mother]: she just wanted to have fun, to go through life seeing new things, learning about what interested her, going to new places. Because of this, I went through life never having a real job, never having a pension plan, never settling down in one place or at one job, but having an enormous amount of fun.” And “never settling down” is one of the memoir’s themes. The essay “Drugs, Sex, and Rock ’n’ Roll” tells the astonishing story of the years she taught English to helicopter pilot trainees in the Iranian Air Force. She arrived in Iran in 1976 knowing little of the country, and began to live an expat life (lots of tennis) with her American and British coworkers, even as the Iranian Revolution arrived. This is just one episode in a peripatetic life that includes stints in late-Maoist China and Saudi Arabia and decades in Europe, particularly Venice, Italy (where her Guido Brunetti novels are set).
These essays feel like dispatches from a different era and world order, and they’re conversational, breezy and occasionally comic rather than contemplative. Leon’s tone is like that of an older friend who has a deep well of entertaining anecdotes from her storied life, and who has also developed an array of interests, among them opera, Handel and beekeeping. The layered essay “Bees” is a standout, describing her slow journey to gardening and her fascination with bees and their threatened existence. “They pulled me into the mystery of their being,” she writes of the bees. But Guido fans be warned: other than noting how her bee research worked its way into a novel, Wandering Through Life offers little detail about her writing life—Leon may be a prolific novelist, but in this memoir, she turns her focus elsewhere.