Divorced, alone, and unexpectedly unemployed, Sylvia Landsman flees to Italy, where she meets Henry, a wistful, married, middle-aged expatriate. Taking off on a grand tour of Europe bankrolled with his wife's money, Henry and Sylvia follow a circuitous route around the continent—as Sylvia entertains Henry with stories of her peculiar family and her damaged friends, of dead ducks and Alma Mahler. Her narrative is a tapestry of remembrances and regrets...and her secret shame: a small, cowardly sin of omission. Yet when the opportunity arises for Sylvia and Henry to do something small but brave, the refrain "if only" returns to haunt her, leaving Sylvia with one more story of love lived and lost.
It takes skill and assurance to pull off this beguiling narrative-by-digression, a love story cum family history cum confession of sins, and Kirshenbaum (An Almost Perfect Moment) has both in plentiful supply. A romantic affair begins in Fiesole when narrator Sylvia Landsman, an out-of-work, 42-year-old New York divorc e, meets debonair Henry Stafford, a Southern-born expatriate with expensive tastes and a good nose for wine. At the outset, Henry reveals that he is married to a rich woman who permits his lavish expenditures, and yet Sylvia cynical, wry and imbued with Jewish guilt dares to hope that Henry will be the man who changes her life. While the lovers enact a contemporary Two for the Road in his green Peugeot, Sylvia entertains Henry with stories about her eccentric family, meanwhile disclosing her own foibles and hang-ups including some portents about betraying her best friend, Ruby. Sylvia segues from comedic quips to sad aper us, and from cultural markers to historical vignettes, finally confessing the sin of omission that ended her friendship with Ruby. What's crushing isn't Sylvia's secret it's how knowledge hasn't made her wiser. There are no happy endings here; instead, Kirshenbaum delivers capital-T truths.