Sunday, December 12, 2021

Review: Lizzie & Dante by Mary Bly

Like the kiss of a butterfly’s wings on a flower, Mary Bly has written Lizzie & Dante with such tenderness. So much of the story mirrors Bly’s lived experience as a Shakespearean professor at Fordham University in New York, marrying an Italian man, and suffering the pain and indignity and fear of cancer. And yet, the heroine emerges from this story a fully formed person in her own right.

Lizzie Delford is on the island of Elba in Italy living at the ultra-fancy Hotel Bonaparte (naturally!) with her best friend, Grey Thuston, and his lover, Hollywood megastar Rohan Das. Lizzie has stage three, incurable cancer and has been invited by Rohan on a luxurious vacation that she could’ve never afforded. In the midst of all her pain and pills, Lizzie enjoys the pampering, the beach, and the warmth of the sun on her skin. And she feels alive like she has not for a very long time. Bly has done an extraordinary job of showing Lizzie’s relationship with her illness. How the fear of pain and the irrevocable slide into further and further deterioration of quality of life are causing her to refuse experimental treatment and to give in to death waiting in the shadows. She exists in the liminal space between living and dying, a stasis of waiting. And yet, she is charmed by a man, voraciously attracted to him, uninhibitedly making love to him, falling in love with him—all life-affirming actions.

Dante Moretti is the father of a twelve-year-old girl. He is also a world celebrity chef whose private life is shrouded in mystery in the wider world. On the island of Elba, everyone knows Dante and his nondescript restaurant where one eats what one is served and dinner reservations, for even the wealthiest yacht owners, are many months out. Lizzie is unimpressed with Dante’s creations, though everyone with a pulse extolls their virtues. He is charmed by her refusal to kowtow to his talents. For a chef who refuses to make substitutions to his dishes, he makes a hamburger for her at her very first meal—his plebian American.

Unlike what the title implies, this is not a romance novel with a happy ever after—this is the heroine’s journey—but the romance between Lizzie and Dante is a large part of the story and the novel hums with the joy of their love. Right from the beginning when they meet on the beach, Lizzie and Dante exist on the verge of being in love. It takes tremendous courage for anyone to love someone, and especially for Lizzie to love Dante. As Lizzie says, “Pity is a terrible reason to start a relationship” and so she does not share her illness and its prognosis with him...until he eventually guesses. For her, there is no “falling in love”—love is an act of valor. You choose it by saying, here is someone I want to share a pillow with and smile across a candlelit dinner table with for all my days. For as Hannah Arendt has said, “Fearlessness is what love seeks.”

Lizzie and Grey met in their teens at their last foster mother’s house, and they have been an item ever since. Their love is intense and soul-binding. For a while, Lizzie thought they would even marry. But the evening when she thought he would propose, he came out to her as being gay. She was utterly devastated. And ran away from him to Europe for further studies. Grey, in turn, was devastated thinking she was rejecting his being gay and hence threw him away. He had thought they would continue as before, and nothing would change.

With great finesse, Bly lays out the complexity of Lizzie’s and Grey’s relationship and how, on Elba, it is compounded by Rohan’s presence in his life and Dante’s presence in her life. Lizzie and Grey are ex-lovers and love each other and yet are not in love with each other. There is a difference that Bly makes you appreciate—this is her skill in writing romances as Eloisa James coming to play. Grey argues that sex is not a definer of love and that his love for Lizzie is purer and all the more valuable than his for Rohan or Dante’s for her. He is fighting for her life and she, by refusing further treatment, was rejecting him all over again. She was not fighting for him.

The issue of further treatment is a complex conundrum for Lizzie. Part of her wants to reject it out of fear of having her hopes repeatedly dashed and out of fear of continued pain. Part of her wants to undergo it because of her love for Grey and Dante. It’s her decision. They don’t get to coerce her to do it. But should she do it for them? Does she owe them? These questions tease at her conscience all throughout the book. It is only when she decides to do it for herself that the decision feels right. As Lizzie says to Grey, “I’ll fight. I will do it all. Everything. And if...if it doesn’t work, it won’t be because I didn’t try to stay here. I promise.”

Lyrically spare and thematically lush, Lizzie & Dante is a sprawling yet intimate tale, rich in detail and images. Bringing her own rich life to the page, Bly has crafted a fictional story that stands on its own. Nobody could better understand Lizzie than Bly—her despair, her laughter, her singing, her very appreciation and sheer gratitude in being alive. There is a wise Shintō saying: “To be fully alive is to have an aesthetic perception of life because a major part of the world's goodness lies in its often unspeakable beauty.”

[Content Warnings: disordered eating, cancer, dying, death, funeral]