The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy

It takes a certain courage (or recklessness or hubris) to write about being a foreigner in Italy, to choose that often-traveled road so littered with clich‚. But in her smart and original memoir, British novelist Rachel Cusk explores the land of gelato and olive trees — joining a parade of English-speaking writers that stretches from E. M. Forster to Elizabeth Gilbert — and makes the experience seem fresh. Dispirited by the routine of life in gloomy Bristol, Cusk and her husband take their two young daughters out of school and board a boat for France to begin a three-month adventure, renting a house in Tuscany. Cusk does not romanticize Italy, nor does she fetishize its sensual pleasures. Though she has a sharp eye for physical detail, she leads with her intellect. Museum visits spark pages-long ruminations on history and religion, including Cusk’s own unhappy history within the Catholic Church. Italian cuisine doesn’t just taste good; it affirms a childlike desire for simplicity. “The pizza has nothing to hide, no dark interior, no subconscious fascination with its own viscera,” she writes. Cusk’s restless mind continually leaps from observation to analogy. A beautiful but polluted bay has “a feeling of mystery, almost of secrecy…. It is like a violated woman who refuses to give up her secret.” Mystery, not epiphany, is what Cusk craves — and what she offers readers. “To seek held no particular fear for me,” she writes. “It was to find, and to know, and to come to the end of knowing that I shrank from.”