I recently read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I thought it was magical, that the writing was luminous, and that the story was wonderful and heartbreaking. My cousin gave me that book and went on to recommend this one. She mentioned that much of it was about being the new parents of twins, something with which I have no experience. I chose a lifestyle without children and have never regretted it.
The day after his wife gave birth to twin boys, Anthony Doerr received an invitation for a year-long fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. He accepted and they packed up their six-month old twins, time having elapsed, and moved to an apartment in Rome. Neither of the adults spoke Italian and, of course, the twins hadn't even mastered English. Brave or insane, I think I know which I think they are.
Through the haze of sleeplessness, Doerr describes stumbling through their first days in Rome. They need to find the nearest grocers, fruit sellers, bakeries, and learn how to negotiate Roman customs. You don't stand at the back of the line waiting your turn. You shoulder your way to the front to call out your order.
Apparently, Italians have a universal love of babies, especially twins. Old people, children, they all smile, say how beautiful they are, and want to touch the babies. Despite having the lowest birth rate of all Europe, he says, he's constantly congratulated on having produced twins.
They find a babysitter so they can occasionally go off to explore Rome and Umbria by themselves. I think we all know how gorgeous the countryside in Italy is, whether from personal experience or movies. Rome is chaos, but layered by thousands of years of human life. At times he seems overwhelmed by the ghosts of all the people who have lived where he and his family are living.
If this sounds like the babies are the centerpieces of the book, they are. Doerr speculates on many aspects of Roman life, how they seem to accept death better than Americans do and, thus, live life more fully, more in the moment. He finds a set of Pliny's Natural History and reads it during his stay. Pliny, who I haven't read, seems much like Herodotus, who I have read, with their wild and wise observations.
In the world of coincidences, Doerr was in Rome, living near the Vatican, during Pope John Paul II's last illness and death. We here in Philadelphia are about to go into literal lockdown mode for the visit of Pope Francis. Two very different situations, but similar in the adoration and massing of the crowds.
The book is fairly short, about 200 pages. It's interesting, although his descriptions sometimes seemed inappropriate for this sort of book, a bit over the top, perhaps better for a novel. And it confirmed that I made the right decision about children!