The Light in the Piazza / Elizabeth Spencer
Markham, ON: Penguin, 1986, c1960.
My copy of this story is the first in a collection of three, the others being Knights & Dragons and The Cousins. I am glad of this, since I'll be reading all of them at some point, as my first introduction to Spencer's work was convincing.
The Light in the Piazza, a brief novella at 67 pages, was full of beautiful Italian light and warmth, just right at this dark time of year. Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara are visiting Florence, enjoying the enchantment of the ancient city and exploring its streets. They meet a young man, Fabrizio Naccarelli, one day as they are sitting at a cafe, and then they seem to meet him everywhere.
A strong connection begins to form between Clara and Fabrizio, and Margaret watches as things begin to get serious. This puts her into an awkward position; she desperately wants her daughter to have a 'normal', happy life, but Clara (though beautiful) had been kicked in the head by a pony as a young girl and thus "has the mental age of a child of ten".
This aspect made me a little uncomfortable with the direction of the story. If she is so innocent, how could her mother think of leaving her behind in Italy? Near the end of the story, though, as Margaret is watching Clara with the Naccarelli family, "I will not be needed anymore, thought Margaret Johnson with something like a sigh, for before her eyes the strongest maternal forces in the world were taking her daughter to themselves." There is a kind of innocence to the story that fits with the era; I'm not sure it could be told out this way today.
In any case, the story is really more about Margaret than Clara -- how will she face this crisis, and what is the correct choice for her? She takes on the decision alone, choosing to avoid involving her husband (who is still back in the US) until it is too late for him to change things. She finds her own strength to shape Clara's life into the way she wishes it to be, and will live with the consequences.
This was really one of those reads that invades the mind; I became very involved with both the Italian setting and the characters. It poses a moral dilemma that I still don't have sorted in my own mind. For such a short novella, it contains much to think about.
The Light in the Piazza is probably Elizabeth Spencer's best known work, and it has been made into a movie, and more recently, into a musical.
A documentary about Spencer herself has also just been made (it looks fantastic) though it seems like it would be a miracle to actually be able to see it.