WHAT CASANOVA TOLD ME by Susan Swan (Knopf), 324 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Susan Swan gets all romantic on us in her new novel, What Casanova Told Me. But with its historical base and crafty parallel structure, it turns out to be a winner.
Archivist Luce Adams has been given responsibility for delivering the papers and diaries of her ancestor Asked For Adams to an Italian archive. En route, she reads the journals and learns that Asked For, niece of American president John Adams, had a hot encounter with fabled lothario Jacob Casanova, beginning in Venice and continuing through travels with him to Greece and Turkey.
Luce is travelling with Lee, her mother, Kitty's, lover, first to Italy and then to Greece, to honour goddess-loving art historian Kitty, who died in a car crash in Greece the year before. Luce winds up in Istanbul, looking for a translator for some Turkish papers, the only way she can learn the end of Asked For's story.
The relationships in the novel are complicated: Casanova is getting old and is almost ashamed of his attraction to Asked For; Luce and Lee have an uneasy connection, Luce never having figured out when her mother turned into a lesbian and why she has feelings of abandonment because of it; and Lee still harbours guilt over Kitty's death.
A book by Swan must have a towering female. In this case, there are two - both Luce and Asked For are tall in head-turning ways, and both are courageous. Asked For does things in the 1790s - rejecting a pre-approved suitor, travelling on her own - that were unheard of at the time, and Luce, though naive in some ways, steps boldly into places that are still not particularly hospitable to women.
Venice and Athens, two of the most sensuous cities on the planet, are almost characters in themselves.
One of Swan's best.
Swan hleps kick off Toronto Arts Week today (Thursday, September 23) at Cith Hall from noon to 2L30 pm, and launches her novel Wednesday (September 29) at the Rivoli (see Readings)