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Spencer, Elizabeth.

Markham (Ont.). Penguin, c1986. 213pp. paper. $7.95, ISBN 0-14-008712-5. (Penguin Short Fiction). CIP

Reviewed by Barbara J. Graham

Volume 14 Number 4
1986 July

Another in the Penguin Short Fiction series. The Light in the Piazza brings together three of Elizabeth Spencer's impressive shoner works, two of which were published first in the 1960s. Spencer, whose origins are small-town American south, lived in Montreal for a number of years. It was during a winter in Montreal that a title story was written.

One of the assets of the Penguin series is the inclusion of an introduction that, if written by the author, adds special contextual meaning to what is to follow. Spencer tells of the magical effect that her experiences in Italy have had on her artistic vision. The three selected pieces of short fiction have been filtered through Italian light, especially the magical light of that first summer, the summer of 1949.

In all three, Spencer concerns herself with the lives of Americans who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in Italy, caught in the web of their own personal tribulations and the fantasy/reality of the Italian experience. Curiously, it is Italy that acts as a catalyst, allowing the characters to realize the illusory nature of their dilemmas.

In the title story, Margaret Johnson, a wealthy American, is in Florence with her beautiful twenty-six year old daughter, Clara, when the two women meet Fabrizio, a young Florentine, who rapidly becomes enamoured of Clara. Margaret has always dreamed that her daughter, who has the mind of a ten year old, might somehow lead a normal life. Dare she take the chance and allow Clara to marry Fabrizio? How will she explain her behaviour to her husband? The "light" in the piazza becomes more than the magical ambience of Florence; it becomes the means by which Margaret discovers her self. Florence, with its intricate display of light and shadow, is the necessary ingredient that makes the narrative work.

"Knights and Dragons," a novella, is still more highly textured. "Martha Ingram had come to Rome to escape something. . .." Thus begins the story of a woman whose marriage to a famous American writer and philosopher has come to an end. She continues to be haunted by the man and her past. When, as part of her job, she must entertain some visiting Americans, a complexity of relationships develop. Again, Italy becomes a major character in a drama that draws the reader to the razor edge of human emotion. The result is searing for the reader who can identify with a multitude of conflicting emotions almost too dense to accept.

"The Cousins," published in 1985, relates the need of middle-aged Ella Mason to come to terms with a summer spent Italy with her cousins thirty years before. She returns to Italy to find her cousin, Eric, who hopefully will provide the calming and the absolving necessary to cure her restlessness. As she catches glimpse of a nameless village between Milan and Florence, she recognizes the reality of an experience that over the years had taken on a dream-like quality:". . I caught my breath and knew it had all been real. So it still was, and would remain. I hadn't invented anything."

The latter statement is surely what Elizabeth Spencer is also telling the reader, who has been magically engaged in a multi-textured drama of "light." This collection will be enjoyed by mature readers who have had some experience in living. The beauty and sensitivity of the writing provides special pleasure.

Barbara J. Graham, Board of Education for the City of London, London, Ont.
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