Monday, May 11, 2009

Review: Venice is Burning

My mom passed along John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels to me after she read it for our library's book club. I'd read his more famous work, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, last summer, and apparently this one was a NY Times Bestseller as well. If you know anything about the style of Midnight in the Garden, then just picture Venice instead of Savannah and you have this book. If you don't know anything about it, I'll explain.

While I usually don't like to compare an author's novels, I'm going to make an exception here for review sake. Let me start with his first novel.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a non-fiction work set in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1980s. After one brief trip, Berendt fell under Savannah's spell and decided to move there for a few years. Savannah in the eighties had a split personality; it was holding onto its old South charm, though much of the city was in disrepair. Berendt was lucky with timing, as he was present for the trial of Jim Williams, a wealthy antiques dealer charged with the murder of a (much-younger) lover Danny. Though the story is never told as a fictive murder mystery, this serves as an underlying plot to the story, around which everything and everyone else he describes revolves.

Now, onto his second novel.

The City of Falling Angels takes place in Venice in the late 1990s. Berendt, on another of his brief trips, was enthralled by the "real" Venice, the one outside of tourist season where people live their day-to-day lives. Once again, he just happened to be in Venice right after the historic Fenice Opera House burned down during restoration. So the question at the center of this trial is, was it negligence or arson? We meet a variety of characters that comprise Venetian society--glassblowers, gondoliers, artists, charity founders, and high-ranking members of society. Berendt follows his penchant for introducing a city through the people that call it home, and he does an excellent job of describing a diverse group of characters from different walks of life. As in Midnight, the biggest character is the city itself, and the people act as the supporting cast. He does an excellent job of giving the reader thorough descriptions of unique cities that hide a lot under the surface.

His second novel is as thoughtfully written as his first, and I walked away from it happy that I got a deeper look at one of the world's biggest tourist attractions. But while The City of Falling Angels does give that rarely seen view of Venice, it just does not have the same draw as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I guess a homicide will always make a more compelling story.

1 comment:

mstohl said...

Midnight is one of my favorite books of all time, and John Berendt really commits (like, a decade) when he decides to write a book. But I ultimately agree with you, while Venice is a lovely book, and Savannah & Venice do seem to have some shared magic, Midnight may be one of those books that is just impossible to top...great review!