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The Chapel: A Novel

The Chapel: A Novel

by Michael Downing

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Recently widowed, unhappily stuck on a pricey whiplash tour of Italy, Elizabeth Berman comes face to face with the first documented painting of a teardrop in human history, and in the presence of that tearful mother, and the arresting company of the renowned and anonymous women painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel, she wakes up to the possibility that she is not


Recently widowed, unhappily stuck on a pricey whiplash tour of Italy, Elizabeth Berman comes face to face with the first documented painting of a teardrop in human history, and in the presence of that tearful mother, and the arresting company of the renowned and anonymous women painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel, she wakes up to the possibility that she is not lost.

Mitchell left me everything, just as he promised. “Everything,” he liked to say during his last month on the sofa, “everything will be yours,” as if it wasn’t yet. I was left with that and two adult children who could not tolerate my sitting in my home by myself—admittedly, rather too often in a capacious pink flannel nightgown and the green cardigan Mitchell was wearing on the afternoon he died.

That’s how Elizabeth winds up on a tour better suited to her late-husband, a Dante scholar. Mitchell masterminded the itinerary as a surprise for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Itching to leave as soon as she arrives in Padua, Elizabeth’s efforts to book a ticket home are stymied by her aggressively supportive children, the ministrations of an incomprehensibly Italian hotel staff, and the prospect of forfeiting the sizable chunk of cash she shelled out for the trip. But there are consolations—arugula pizza and ancient arcades and Aperol spritzes in the piazza with her odd lot of fellow castaways.

Instead of deconstructing their disappointing former lives, they are drawn together by their longing to understand how something beautiful is made. They dive headlong into the Arena Chapel, trying to untangle Giotto himself, whose frescoes in Padua secured his reputation as the world’s greatest painter.

Michael Downing has devised a divine romantic comedy. Tracking the hopes and heartaches and hangovers of a woman with a history of disappearing,The Chapel shows us that happiness is as fragile as a fresco by Giotto.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Fiction and nonfiction author Downing’s (Perfect Agreement) latest work combines art, art history, and Italian allure into a cerebral romance channeling love, loss, and the complexities of emotional closure. Liz Berman, widowed by her husband Mitchell, still mourns the recent loss, though her two adult children refuse to allow the 50-something ex-librarian from New England to dismiss her 35th wedding anniversary, a “month-long Italian adventure” family vacation, which had been planned before his death. To honor the fact that Mitchell had been penning a book on Dante, Liz, somewhat reluctantly, embarks on a grand tour of Padua accentuated by an eccentric gaggle of travelling intellectual artists—including a flirty silver-haired doctor named T, who persuades her to travel further with him instead of returning home, much to the chagrin of her concerned children. Light melodrama plays out against a backdrop of the exquisite scenery of the Arena Chapel, Giotto di Bondone’s famous frescoes, and Italy’s general majesty, which all work their magic on Liz and lull her into a mesmerized state of awe and romantic delusion. Snapping her out of it is a revelation that hits close to home—and reminds her that her real life awaits back in Cambridge, with or without T. Line drawings, photographs, blueprints, and some exceptionally witty prose and banter complement this affecting story which, despite a relatively pat resolution, remains vividly entertaining. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“Downing’s latest work combines art, art history, and Italian allure into a cerebral romance channeling love, loss, and the complexities of emotional closure . . . Line drawings, photographs, blueprints, and some exceptionally witty prose and banter complement this affecting story . . . vividly entertaining.” —Publishers Weekly

“Downing’s rich descriptions of the chapel in Padua and fastidious art lectures are reminiscent of the work of Dan Brown, but the mysteries here are mostly of the heart. This story of life after loss delivers equal measures of history and hope.”—Booklist

The Chapel is a rich and rewarding novel, by turns comic, thoughtful, nostalgic, and exuberant. I only put it down to browse airfares to Italy.” —Valerie Martin, bestselling author of Italian Hours and Property

"It’s moving, funny, and memorable: a tale of the baggage we all travel with, a portrait of grief and regeneration, and a bittersweet love story in which the beloved is a 700-year-old work of art.” —Joan Wickersham, bestselling author of The News from Spain and The Suicide Index

“There are art lessons, history lessons, and life lessons here, and the amazing and original thing is how all the entanglements sustain the possibility of romance. Downing gives us a witty female narrator with the smarts to make us trust her story. It’s bumper cars with biscotti and Prosecco.”—Dennis McFarland, bestselling author of Nostalgia and The Music Room

“At last, a love story for adults – wrapped in a sophisticated mystery about art, religion and the fragility of the human heart.”— Elizabeth Benedict, bestselling author of Almost and The Practice of Deceit

“Clever, acerbic Liz is both terse and obliquely flirtatious with the many men she meets who tend, surprisingly, to be voluble, kindly and sometimes sexy . . . playful and erudite ”
Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Review
Under the spell of Giotto's celestial frescoes in Padua, Italy, a waspish American widow grapples with the emotional and intellectual baggage left behind after her husband's death.The narrative thread runs idiosyncratically in Downing's new novel (Life With Sudden Death, 2009, etc.), which shifts unpredictably between the real-time unhappiness of recently bereaved 57-year-old Cambridge ex-librarian Liz Berman and the more highbrow art history analysis thrown up by the peculiar crew of intellectuals and fellow travelers she encounters on a faintly surreal trip to Europe. She's simultaneously furious at her dead husband, Mitchell, who had been unfaithful to her, and grieving over him; it was he who arranged the tour of Italy as a surprise for their 35th wedding anniversary (he had been planning to write a book about Dante). Though she never wanted to take the trip, Liz finds herself swept along by the art and the unpredictable encounters. Much of the conversation is about Dante's Divine Comedy and its relationship to Giotto's frescoes in Padua's Arena Chapel. Clever, acerbic Liz is both terse and obliquely flirtatious with the many men she meets who tend, surprisingly, to be voluble, kindly and sometimes sexy. Notable among them is a mysterious doctor named T., burdened with two ex-wives and a daughter who recently committed suicide. Digesting her loss and fielding her family's messages and events back home in Cambridge, Liz opts out of the tour and joins a conference studying the frescoes instead. When resolution and romance finally arrive, they are tidy, cute and no more convincingly real than the novel's entire setup.Photos, stick-figure sketches, comical Italian-accented English, intellectual freight, metaphors that turn literal and some good jokes pepper this novel, which is playful and erudite but also self-conscious and perhaps too restlessly rarefied.

Product Details

Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

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Read an Excerpt

The bus ride from Venice to Padua was a little less than an hour
long. The trip was slightly longer if you counted the fifteen-minute wait at the Venice train station for the widow from Cambridge, who was already famous for going AWOL at airports. At least eight of my twelve fellow passengers on the EurWay minibus counted the wait time against me, and so did the driver, an American college kid. As he crammed my red wheelie into the overhead luggage rack, he advised me of my obligation to be present at designated pickup locations fifteen minutes before departures.
I thanked him and apologized for not knowing the routine. Somebody—one of the five men—shouted, “Read the contract.”
“Sit here, if you like.” This offer came from a woman seated directly behind the driver. She pulled a skein of ivory yarn from the unoccupied seat beside her and skewered it with her two-foot-long bronze knitting needles. She had short dark hair parted on the side—she couldn’t have been fifty—and she was wearing pink capri pants with a pink bolero jacket over a white turtleneck, which made me think she lived alone and didn’t have any close friends. Surely, someone who loved her would have suggested a simple cotton cardigan.
No one else moved.
The seats across the aisle from the knitter were occupied by a trenchcoat. The next two rows on both sides were apparently reserved for retired married couples, the four wives tucked neatly into window seats, their husbands with newspapers and maps sprawled out, legs crossed, their big shoes blocking the aisle. Behind the couples, next to the only open seats, was a tall, silver-haired gentleman with his eyes closed. Even at a glance, he was much too composed to be sleeping, so maybe he was meditating, but more likely he was praying I wouldn’t sit in the open row beside him. In the aisle seats at the very back, two women with identical silver perms and shiny navy blue jogging suits—sisters or suburban lesbians—were happily passing a digital camera back and forth, reviewing the record of their two days in Venice.
Huge raindrops splattered against the windows, and the sun retreated across the concrete parking lot like an outgoing tide. This turn in the weather didn’t improve anybody’s mood, so I smiled apologetically at the knitter and said, “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
She waved me down. Once I was settled and the bus had pulled out of the parking lot, she pointed her thumb at the trench coat on the empty seats and whispered, “He’s the one who yelled at you. Welcome to junior high school.” She took up her knitting.
The day had gone dark, and the Italian weather was being compared unfavorably to summer days in Raleigh, North Carolina, by the couple behind us, and they were also annoyed at the tour guide’s failure to clear up their confusion about Venice, the Veneto, and Vicenza, which was creating some anxiety about Tuesday.
I saw the month ahead as a wall calendar, each day an empty window I wanted to jump out.
“My name is Shelby Cohen,” said the knitter, never looking up from her lap, “and if you prefer peace and quiet, just say so.”
“I was admiring your needles,” I said. On the top of the one nearest me was a shiny, piercingly blue stone disk in a silver setting.
She said, “Do you knit?”
“Oh, god, no,” I said, and into the awkward silence that followed, I tossed another conversation stopper. “I really don’t do anything.”
“I don’t either, not in the summer,” she said casually. “I’m an accountant, and so is Allen, my husband, so we each take a month off in the summer, after the late-filing madness dies down. He’s a climber, and me—well, I’m a shopper. I found these needles last summer in a little hand-forging operation in a tiny town on Galway Bay, would you believe.”
“Is that a gemstone?”
“Lapis lazuli,” she said.
I’d only ever seen that in museums. “So they are really precious.”
“No, fifteen euros or something for the pair, but I think they were meant to be displayed and not used.” She showed me the top of the other needle. The silver setting was empty. She examined a patch of ivory wool ribbing she’d finished. “One cuff,” she said. “I am so sorry your husband died. I hope there’s some comfort for you in being here.”
The Boston Globe obituary for Mitchell had been sent out as an addendum to the little biographical notes compiled by the tour company, which were meant to give us a head start on getting acquainted with our fellow travelers. I had never gotten around to reviewing the roster, but I wasn’t looking forward to being the sad sack of the group, the distraught widow. “I’m frankly not sure what I expected, but I am not very well prepared for this,” I said.
“This—you mean the trip?” Shelby was working up a sleeve to go with that cuff.
“The trip, Italian vocabulary, sticking to a schedule, holding down my end of a casual conversation on a bus. Being alone.”
She leaned forward in her seat and pointed to the middle of her back with her needles. “Is something all ruffled up back there?” Something was amiss. I tugged tentatively at the wrinkly pink ruching between her shoulder blades, which dropped down, as did the puffed-up fabric on her shoulders, which I’d mistaken for epaulets. It was a cashmere cardigan.
“Thanks,” Shelby said flatly. “That’s one of the downsides of traveling alone. You never know the condition of your hindquarters. But there are benefits, too.” She leaned back. “After the group meeting at the hotel, we’re on our own for dinner, and the doctor offered to take me along to a place he wants to try in the Piazza del Erbe.”
The meeting, the doctor, the piazza—I should have grabbed my itinerary. I wasn’t even sure Shelby was inviting me along for her outing. “I don’t want to be a third wheel,” I said, the anthem of all third wheels.
“Oh, don’t worry, you might be a fifth wheel,” she said, and she didn’t explain because my cell phone rang.
It only rang twice and then stopped, but one of the men behind us said, “No, she didn’t turn her ringer off because she’s above the rules. Harvard, you know.”
Shelby turned around quickly, as if she might say something in my defense, but I put my hand on hers.
Shelby smiled. “I guess you’re used to that—occupational hazard.”
“More like guilt by association,” I said. “I was a reference librarian until my children were born. Now, I teach reading to public-school kids. Or I did before Mitchell was diagnosed.” Well, about five years before the diagnosis, the public schools cut reading specialists out of the budget and I agreed to roam around the city as a fill-in librarian and substitute teacher’s aide. I spent many days portioning Gummi Bears into little paper cups under the scrutiny of women younger than my daughter. This past September, I retired because I was finally fully vested, with a pension that might cover the rent for a third-floor
walk-up studio apartment on the Somerville side of the Cambridge town line—if I went easy on the utilities.
The woman directly behind us said, “No, it wasn’t because he was rejected.” She amped up the volume, or else she leaned forward so I could hear her clearly. “And I heard there were at least two other boys in his class who got into Harvard but went to Duke.”
Shelby shrugged.
I said, “I think Harvard is infuriating because all the self-important monkey business somehow preserves something people still look up to. It’s like the Vatican. I almost feel like skipping Rome because I know I’ll have to be grateful to the scoundrels after I see the Sistine Chapel.”
Shelby said, “Are you a Catholic?”
Not much of one, not since my sophomore year in college, when my mother died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm. She’d been plagued by migraines for months, and instead of bothering her doctor with complaints about a silly headache, she had decided to give up coffee for Lent on the advice of a parish priest.
But I was practiced and pious enough as a young Catholic girl to be an asset when Mitchell was navigating the implicit moral and social codes at Boston College. I also came in handy as a theological resource when he was still working on his Dante book in earnest those evenings. I was no scholar. I was more like Wikipedia with a cocktail shaker. But I had other skills, as well, and Mitchell’s readiness to exploit them registered as a compliment, elevating my degree in library science from technical training to an academic accomplishment.
During my last year at the Cambridge library, I happily devoted more time to cross-referencing arcane 14th-century sources than to reshelving periodicals, but then we went to Paris, and he came home to a new job, and I came home pregnant. We didn’t lose Dante when Mitchell veered off into the secular world of academic administration, but an unlikely passion we’d shared
was downsized to a hobby. And nothing in my girlhood qualified me as a guide to Harvard Yard. I stayed at home until Rachel and Sam were in school. And now, I was no longer a wife, no longer a librarian or a teacher, and not really a mother anymore. Not a lot to go on conversationally.
So, as no one in the Church hierarchy had bothered to excommunicate me for my many sins, I said, “I am a Catholic. Why
do you ask?”
“I thought Berman might be Jewish,” Shelby said.
“Mitchell’s father was a Jew,” I said.
Shelby said, “He’s passed on, too?”
“Years ago,” I said. “And Mitchell’s mother, too.”
Shelby said, “And your parents?”
I felt like Typhoid Mary. “I do have a brother,” I said.
I couldn’t tell if Shelby was afraid to ask another question or if her curiosity about me was waning. She had taken up her knitting again. I closed my eyes and tried to come up with something interesting to say. It seemed a safe bet that Shelby and Allen Cohen were Jewish, but I’d been wrong about the bolero. I didn’t know where she lived or if she had children, but I didn’t want to insult her by proving I hadn’t read her personal profile.
“Do you want to see something beautiful?” Shelby passed me her phone. “Allen just sent me this. He’s climbing the Three Saints this month in Southern California.”
Above a foreground of palm trees, a vast snowcapped run of ridges and peaks rose right out of the desert, topped off by an impossibly blue sky. I said, “Put your needle there—the blue one—put it right there, on the sky.”
Shelby tilted the stone toward the screen and smiled. “Lapis
lazuli,” she said.
I nodded. It was bluer than the familiar blue sky—it was the empyrean, the brightness Dante had imagined beyond the bounds of heaven and earth, beyond past and future, beyond the beyond.
Shelby aimed her finger at the top of the little screen. “That’s San Jacinto, the tallest of the peaks. Ten thousand feet high. That’s where he’s headed right now. I can show you a picture of Allen on the mountain.”
Her shoulder pressed into my arm and our hands touched again as she searched for the right button on her phone. I didn’t move. I held my breath. I wanted to extend this contact, this oddly intimate moment, extend my readiness to believe in that blue above and beyond the Three Saints, that immaterial place where Allen and Mitchell might someday meet.

Meet the Author

Michael Downing’s novels include the national bestseller Perfect Agreement, named one of the 10 Best Books of the year by Amazon and Newsday, and Breakfast with Scot, a comedy about two gay men who inadvertently become parents. An American Library Association honor book, Breakfast with Scot was adapted as a movie that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. His nonfiction includes Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, hailed by the New York Review of Books as a “dramatic and insightful” narrative history of the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia, and by the Los Angeles Times as “a highly readable book.” His essays and reviews appear in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals. Michael teaches creative writing at Tufts University. He and his partner have lived together in Cambridge for more than 25 years.

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