Have You Read? Book shows the mystery, magic of Venice
November 15, 2005
“The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt
In 1994, writer John Berendt released his first book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” This true story gave Berendt instant success, with the book reigning on the New York Times bestseller list for four years and leading to a very popular movie. Ten years after Berendt’s “Midnight,” he has come back with the long-awaited “The City of Falling Angels.” Part nonfiction literature, part whodunit mystery, the new best-selling book is a great read for most everyone. In this book Berendt has chosen to use all of the people’s real names, instead of pseudonyms like he used in “Midnight,” which definitely adds to the flavor of the book.
The story begins Jan. 29, 1996, with the destruction of the famed La Fenice Opera in a late night fire. Berendt finds himself arriving just three days later, trying to avoid tourists, and just in time to get wrapped up in the question on everyone’s mind: Was the fire an accident or an act of malicious arson? At first we follow Berendt through the investigation and the subsequent trial, but as the book goes on, more focus is put onto the people encountered during his trip. While the reader probably won’t have to refer to it often, Berendt has done the reader a unique and helpful service by adding reference pages to the back of the book. In these pages he has a glossary of Italian words that are used throughout the story (which are defined in the text the first time they’re used), all of the characters and organizations that appear, and all the buildings and landmarks that are discussed.
Fans of Berendt’s “Midnight” will be thrilled with the similarities between the two books, as well as with all of the differences that make this book its own. While in two completely different continents, Venice will probably remind “Midnight” fans a little of the Savannah that Berendt portrayed previously. Much like the quaint Georgia city, Venice is full of colorful people, tourists, and culture, and seems like its own isolated world. The arson trial that appears in this newest work isn’t as predominant and exciting as the murder trial in “Midnight,” though it does still add quite a bit of suspense, but instead Berendt has focused much more on all of the unique characters he meets along the way. From the Venetians who pride themselves on being Venetian first and Italian second, to the Americans devoted to a Save Venice organization, the reader gets to meet people from all walks of life and learn how the arson, and Venice itself, affects them all. However, the reader should remain aware that not all Venetians are who they appear to be, for as Berendt states in his first sentence, “everyone in Venice is acting.”
At the end of “The City of Falling Angels” some readers may be initially displeased by the lack of closure in the trial, but the reader will soon discover that maybe that’s the point of the book. Even though it was the arson that started the book, and brought all of these people together, it is the people who are most important in this story and not the fire. Through his ending, Berendt manages to show people the mystery, magic and scandal that is Venice, the true Venice, which tourists don’t necessarily see. Getting to know such interesting people as a lovable master glassblower, a lawyer with several redeeming qualities, a poet with an interesting project, and Ezra Pound’s mistress who’s been bereaved of all her riches; readers will end up loving the fact that Berendt spent so much time detailing the characters of these people as well as for all of the detail given to describing Venice itself. After finishing this book, anyone who has never been to Venice will be able to practically picture the city, from the three bridges attaching this city built on water (which are extremely important symbols for Venetians) to the magnificent Santa Maria della Salute church that can be seen for miles (which the book is named after). Berendt describes it all with such romanticism that the book is sure to do for Venice what “Midnight” did for Savannah: get every reader to take a trip to the city as soon as possible.
– Brittany Rowland is a sales associate at Neighbors Bookstore.