About the book:
In the brilliant Greek sunshine of a small Aegean island, Beth and Cesare meet—beginning a transformative love affair that spans two continents, two decades, and two lifetimes. Cesare is a privileged Italian boy, raised in a prosperous town where his family has lived for five hundred years; Beth, an ambitious American dreamer born to hippies and raised on a commune. The events of September 11 serve as a catalyst for the unfolding of their story, in which passion struggles against the inexorable force of patria.
The novel of the American in Europe has a long and lustrous pedigree. L’America adds to this lineage, an evocative portrait of the intersection between Europe and America, the old and the new, and the dizzying, life-changing power of first love.
About the author:
MARTHA McPHEE’s novel Gorgeous Lies was a National Book Award Finalist. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She teaches at Hofstra University and lives in New York.
1. What tone is launched by the novel’s opening vignette, capturing the legacy of Benvenuto and Valeria? What is evoked by the recurring image of Cellini’s fresco?
2. What is the effect of the unconventional timeline used in the novel? In what way are history and the present often inextricable?
3. Chapter 3 begins with the lines, “Love is a victory over time. Love steals from death.” Does this prove to be true for Beth and Cesare? Was it true for Beth’s parents?
4. What do Beth and Sylvia discover about men during the travels of their youth? Are they typical of girls their age? How are they influenced by Chas?
5. Who’s the better friend: Sylvia or Beatrice? What dynamic is at work in Beth’s friendship with Bea?
6. Discuss the effect of the novel’s varied settings, from the commune to New York to Europe. In what ways are Beth and Cesare transformed when immersed in one another’s communities? What do they see that only an outsider could discern?
7. Standing in her doorway, the tuxedo-clad Cesare tells Beth he does not know who he is. What are the true reasons for his sense of alienation from himself? Are any of the novel’s characters able to discern their true selves and live authentically?
8. What did Beth’s father and grandmother impart to her about the nature of love and relationships? How was Beth influenced by the memory of Claire?
9. What accounts for the deep attraction between Cesare and Beth—the naïvete of first love, sheer exoticism, or something deeper? Can the nature of such an intense attraction ever really be understood? Would their love have withered if one of them had made a cultural compromise, enabling them to marry?
10. Compare the family dynamics in which Cesare and Beth were raised. Are there any parallels between Jackson’s commune and the idealism and protocols in Cesare’s ancestry?
11. Discuss the notions of chance and fate as they play out in L’America. What outcomes did Bear propel in Beth’s storyline? What recurring cycles of fate, such as daughters losing their mothers, occur in the novel?
12. In what way is food significant throughout the novel? How do Beth’s culinary experiences abroad capture excitement of the new world she is encountering? How does that cuisine compare to the food philosophies of her father’s utopian farm? Why is Beth drawn to be a chef?
13. How would you characterize Cesare’s and Beth’s marriages? How might their spouses have described these marriages had the novel been told from their points of view?
14. In opening and closing scenes of L’America, Cesare’s thoughts of Beth blur with thoughts of his young family. How did you react when you realized that September 11 was the catalyst for these scenes, and for the denouement of their story?
15. What approaches are demonstrated in McPhee’s previous novels and in this one? What are the hallmarks of her literary style? How might Beth have fared in the Furey-Cooper family, featured in Bright Angel Time and Gorgeous Lies?