The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

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The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

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Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A family with young children ups sticks and decamps to Italy. As old hat as that might sound, you won't have read it given such a treatment as here.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571242566

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So, there's this family, right, and the parents have itchy feet, so they pack everything up and say goodbye to the dog, and leave Clifton, Bristol, and drive down to Italy and live a fine and different life, and the plumbing might not be the best but the neighbours and the scrumping and the wine are all to die for and it all comes right in the end with life-affirming brilliance.

There will be many people shuddering at that completely false description of this book.

Sure, the dog gets left behind, as does Bristol, and the Italian neighbours are wonderful, but the whole mood and style of this biographical travel essay comes across as unique in the world of similarly-themed books that have flourished over the past years.

I can't think of another example of the genre where the author is put off by the sound of a Sunday evening out when it sounds like too many ex-pats getting drunk. The truth is a lot more appealing, to both this writer and this reader. I'm not aware of many other travel books where fields are described as affectless. And let's be honest, there are countless similar narratives where the person experiencing the culture shock makes no attempt to learn the language – here the hidden cultural semiotics of the relevant language guides can be discussed.

And when in Italy, there is a lot more cultured looking at frescos, and castles and their financially impaired residents, and a lot less redecorating and cheese-buying. Partly this is down to the fact this story concerns a three-month trek, mostly living in a holiday cottage but followed by a top-to-toe of Italy, and not a complete re-build of a life and a farmhouse. But the fact this book is written by such a polymath, polyglot, poly-anything, tends to lean the book more towards W G Sebald than A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.

It's the reader's own drifting travel through the book, from theme to theme, subject to subject, at the hands of someone doing so much more than recrafting her travel journals, that is the appeal here. We see artwork we've never heard of, experience the scorn of the natives at such art tourists, and get shown so much more than we would have thought.

We get lovely poetry with the daughters of the family catching fireflies, and the discussions about choosing ice cream, and the local shop-owner, are charming. But when it comes down to the poetry of the physics of a tennis match in the late-spring sun, among other instances, there comes the strong sense that some people will find it terribly over-written. The reality of our life was one I experienced as disorganised on a perceptual level. I never know where to put myself in relation to it, for it existed in a state not of being but of perennial becoming. Do what now? Elsewhere, spaghetti alla carbonara is farinaceous.

On the whole I did enjoy the book, and the style of it. The meandering stroll pattern to it matches a lot of qualities of Italy, as seen here – it is the old lady crisscrossing her marketplace, the copious rivers dawdling in the summertime, the swifts circling the piazzas seen at half-speed. It lends itself to a meditative read, and ultimately leaves a host of impressions, and a lot of questions. Could one really live one's own life, with school, work, success and failure, in a country not one's own? And, can one come off holiday and style one's life to the holiday rhythms, patterns, sensibilities?

In the end perhaps I was left with a slightly quizzical eyebrow to discover this all occurred in 2006, and only published early 2009, and felt bludgeoned by her scoffing of the kind of tourism I have indulged in for the past 25 years – and fully intend to carry on experiencing. But that cannot diminish the fine writing we often get in these pages, which I can recommend to those willing to enjoy the style.

We at the Bookbag must thank Faber for our review copy.

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Buy The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk at


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