When in Rome

Saving Rome by Megan K. Williams (Second Story), 226 pages, $18.95 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN .

Saving Rome by Megan K. Williams (Second Story), 226 pages, $18.95 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN

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A batch of short stories whose main characters are all Canadians living in Rome – many of them civil servants and the wives/husbands of civil servants – risks being totally monotonous. Megan K. Williams avoids this danger in her tender-hearted and amusing first collection by providing fresh angles on themes of displacement, relationship ennui and disappointed expectations. Williams, who divides her time between Rome and Toronto, has a clean, straightforward style, which is exactly what you’d expect from an accomplished journalist, and she reveals more intricate layers of plot at a graceful pace. She allows the reader to experience the whirlwind emotions of her characters, capturing the cultural confusion of many Canadians in Italy.

In Pets, a young mother deals with isolation in a city where she doesn’t speak the language and her husband is often absent. She gets emotionally involved with a pet store owner after she buys hamster after hamster for her increasingly uninterested daughter. Pets is Williams at her funniest and most insightful.

Motion is a stunning story about a caustic, independent wife stuck on a bicycling vacation with a husband and a cheerful couple she can’t stand the type who bike through rainstorms singing nursery rhymes. Her self-awareness peaks in a cornfield at dusk where she loses track literally of her family.

Less successful is The Girls In Bikinis, a meandering tale about a middle-aged lesbian civil servant in Rome who left a passionless relationship in Ottawa for the excitement of Italy only to discover that it’s hard to be alone. Descriptions of lesbian bed death smack of stereotypes and lack complexity.

This is a great book to have on hand for summer travel, a fast-paced assortment of prosaic delights with rich details about Italian culture from the perspective of a Canadian outsider.

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