Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What we're reading…Traveling into the past


As you have probably noticed by now, our summer reading program for grown-ups is called Novel Destinations, and it's focused on travel. Mr. Kozak, our librarian who does the beautiful book displays at the Central Library, asked all of us for novel suggestions involving travel to include, and in thinking through books I had read that were set in exotic places, I recalled The Flight of the Falcon, by Daphne du Maurier, and checked it out for a re-read.


Most people remember du Maurier for Rebecca, admittedly her best-known work, since it appears on many high school reading lists, and was also made into a popular movie starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine back in the 1940s, by no less a director than Alfred Hitchcock. It's one of my favorites of hers, but by no means the only one. And although I wouldn't put FOTF in my top three (that would be filled out by My Cousin Rachel and The King's General), it's definitely in the second tier (which includes Frenchman's Creek and The House on the Strand).

Du Maurier was quite versatile. Her books include a couple of specifically historical novels, but also epitomize the gothic, the romance, the psychological, and one (The House on the Strand) that is a weird combination of historical with science fiction impossible to categorize. No matter what, though, she always conveys a firm and evocative sense of place, wherever (or whenever) that place may be, and in The Flight of the Falcon, although the city in which it is set, Ruffano, is fictional, it corresponds closely to the real Italian city of Urbino, a university town with a Ducal palace and an intriguing array of historical dukes with violent pasts (one of said dukes being the "falcon" to which the title alludes).

The protagonist is Armino Fabbio, a 30-something courier for Sunshine Tours, who has an arts degree and an affinity for languages, and has used this fluency to escort busloads of English and American tourists ("beef" and "barbarians") around the major cities of Italy. When he was a child, he led a sheltered life as the younger of two sons of Aldo Donati, the superintendent of the Ducal palace in a small Italian university town. World War II changed all that--his father died in a prison camp, his brother (a pilot) was shot down, and when he was 11, his mother took him and decamped with a German Commandant.

All this was far in his past, eclipsed by his mother's later marriage to a nice bookkeeper in Turin, named Fabbio, who adopted and raised Armino. But the sight of an old beggar woman on the steps of a cathedral in Rome takes him back to those days in his dreams, and subsequent events lead him to seek out the city of his birth, where surprise after surprise changes both Armino's memories and his future life decisions. The plot is full of shocks and twists, with a brooding, menacing quality and also a nice feel for its setting in both the ancient past and the "present" of 1960s Italy.

Our copy of this book is ancient and musty--it looks like the original library-bound book from 1965! But since it's been reissued in a nice new(er) paperback format, I'll be ordering a replacement so we continue to feature this lesser-known du Maurier work in our library.

This is just one of the travel-related books we'll be featuring as part of Novel Destinations. Be sure to sign up for the program so you can share your favorite books with us, and with your contemporaries in Burbank!


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