Comfortably Numb

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Published on: 02/10/21 5:38 AM

Book review: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. HarperCollins UK. 2007 release.

Taking up two disparate strands, that of rearing newborn twins and of spending a year in the Eternal City, Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer-prize winning author of All The Light We Cannot See, gives us a most charming travelogue-memoir.

He`s funny about his boys: The boys fall and get back up; fall and get back up. An hour into it, I`m ready to faint myself (earlier in the book,  his wife had fainted and been hospitalised from exhaustion).  There is a metaphor in all this standing up and falling over but I`m too busy trying to keep their heads from smashing into the corners of tables to contemplate it.

Doerr dutifully quotes Eleanor Clark on the `too-muchness` of Rome: Too much beauty, too much input; if you`re not careful, you can overdose. However, the book is an undisguised love letter to Italy`s capital city.

This is what the reader gets, between accounts of sleepless nights, nappy changing, having virtually all the denizens of Rome coo over his babies, trying to buy pane (bread) at the forno, finding a nanny, and later as the boys became almost a year old, taking off with wife Shauna to visit nearby towns:

Each time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower; water leaks nonstop from the spouts of a half-sunken marble boat in the Piazza di Spagna. A church door looks soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese is rich enough to change my life.

How old it all seems! And how new! Centuries bursting past in flashes, generations pouring along the streets like tides, old women, baby carriages, Caesars, popes, Mussolini – time is a bright scarf rippling past our eyes, columns rearing and toppling, temples rising and silting over and rising again.

To live here is to live partly in a world of fantasy — the twisting lanes, the slumbering statues, the winter sun small and cold behind the swaying heads of the pines.

Try for a moment to understand how overwhelmingly many dimpled and cracking surfaces this city must try to keep clean: fonts, flower petals, pediments, railings, hieroglyphics on obelisks, the furrowed robes of ten thousand solemn Madonnas, the plump cheeks of a hundred thousand grinning cherubs. We all fight our daily battles with entropy –deadhead the tulips, pick up the fallen Cheerios, carry out the used diapers – but Rome has it the worst.

My attention is sucked ceaselessly toward water. The Tiber,  sure…but (mainly) it’s the fountains: drinking fountains, district fountains, monumental fountains. A travel website says there are 280 fountains in Rome but it seems as if there are more.: the tower of miters and keys that is the Fontanella delle Tiare in the Borgo; the giant twin bathtubs in Piazza Farnese; the lions spewing water in Piazza San Bernardo. There is a spigot spilling day and night into a stone tank at the bottom of via di Porta San Pancrazio; another near Garibaldi`s huge statue atop the Janiculum.

Taking in Roma, says Doerr, the gaze widens and drifts; the eye  is insatiable. The brain drowns. He then follows that up with two popular quotes.

Non c~e una citta piu bella di Roma, says a cabbie to the author, casually but intensely. There is no city more beautiful than Rome.

Roma, non basta una vita. One life is not enough.

As a character in the book says: Ecco Roma…here is Rome! And this beautiful city is  presented to us in the most charming way by Doerr.

Four Seasons in Rome is the perfect palate cleanser between heavier reads.




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Sheila Kumar • February 10, 2021

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