“Shebooks editorial director Laura Fraser was drinking a Negroni with some Italian women when one told her that everyone in Italy–tutti quanti–are talking about Shebook’s The Marco Chronicles, by Elizabeth Geoghegan. It’s creating a sensation in Italy–try it! As delicious, and slightly bitter, as a Negroni. Can you resist a book that starts, “If Rome were a woman, she’d be a whore”??? (To make a Negroni, shake equal parts red vermouth, gin, and Campari over ice and serve in a martini glass with a twist of orange).”
“How perfect,” I thought, when I saw Laura Fraser’s remarks about The Marco Chronicles. The night beforehand, friends had gathered to toast the publication of my 2nd Shebook Natural Disasters. Traditionally, August in Rome means most inhabitants have high-tailed it to the seaside or mountains for the summer holidays. In case you didn’t get the memo, in Italy, summer vacations are compulsory. At this time of year, Rome can have an almost post-apocalyptic feel. A sultry hush falls over the city, favorite cafes are shuttered, tourists trudge in circles, stunned by the heat. And yet insiders know August is the best time of year to be here, so when could be better to raise a glass and celebrate a new book? But at “casa mia” we do things with a twist, so my friends chose to “cin-cin” with a Negroni Sbagliato instead.
In Italian, “sbagliato” means mistaken. Legend has it the Negroni Sbagliato was born when a bartender accidentally splashed white wine in the place of gin. My Roman pals love anything bubbly, so we dash in Prosecco in the clear component’s stead, rendering the colorful cocktail effervescent and laced with the bitterness of Campari that Italians so favor. But why do Italians crave bitterness? Do they prefer an aperitivo or espresso “amaro” to remind them that life isn’t always sweet? Do they just like extremes? Can you only appreciate the richness Italy offers when it is paired with something tart? It seems so. And does the penchant for all things bitter explain why Italians embraced The Marco Chronicles? It might. In Italy, there is a saying, “Ciò che è amaro alla bocca è dolce al cuore” or “what is bitter to the mouth is sweet to the heart.”
When The Marco Chronicles came out, Italians and expats alike seemed to feel a kind of kinship with certain (admittedly outrageous) pronouncements I made about my adopted city and its inhabitants. But they implicitly understood that I meant no harm; if I was making fun of them, I was also ridiculing myself. It was the wink of “we get each other” not the raised eyebrow of indignation. Perhaps the Italians get me in the same way I presume to get them because we are all of us in love with the same thing: Rome. Besotted though we may be, we are also ever on the verge of divorce—albeit “Italian style,” meaning it may take years. Possibly forever! As glorious as it may sound, living in Rome (or living with Rome) is no picnic. It’s a rite of passage hard won that even the locals suffer. I’ve learned you cannot love the sweet heart (or is that actually the sweetheart?) of the matter unless you first earn it with a touch of bitterness to the tongue. In The Marco Chronicles I may never get the guy, but I most definitely get the girl. I get “La Grande Bellezza.” And in August, I get her all to myself. Like a Negroni Sbagliato, Rome sparkles but lets face it, she’s got an edge.