Preface: The Coronavirus pandemic has made worriers of us all, for good reason. I’ve been passing around news articles and alerts with friends and family (like everyone else). But, so far, I’m unable to grasp the import and meaning of this crisis fully enough to write anything worthwhile about it. As always, I turn to books to balance my fears.
Carl Sagan said, “To read is to voyage through time.” By that account I’ve spent decades traveling the world over, around the globe, into space and through time. My expectations when opening a new book are twofold. I hope to discover new places and new ideas and revisit familiar ones. And, I plan to exploit the opportunity to look into the author’s mind.
Within its pages Delia Ephron’s Siracusa let me do all that. But, the journey it sent me on after I’d read the final page surprised me.
Siracusa is an engaging story, told from the alternating points-of-view of four central characters. Each chapter offers new insights into the foursome’s relationship and new observations about Italy, the land they’re vacationing through.
I walked through the dense crowds of Rome with Taylor and Finn and tasted their gelato. Visiting Cimitero Acattolico (Rome’s ‘Non-Catholic Cemetery’) with Michael and Lizzie I reminisced about the lives and the poetry of John Keats and Percy Shelley, and learned that the famous beat poet, Gregory Corso, chose to be buried there at their side. I watched the NYC couple, both writers, picnic near the headstones and reclaim some of their romance, before shoving off for the island city of Siracusa.
In Siracusa I know that life-changing experiences await the traveling companions. Delia Ephron foreshadows the events even while we’re still getting to know the writing couple, and their friends, Taylor and Finn from Maine, who have brought along their shy 10-year-old daughter. We learn that the famous playwright, Michael, has a mistress back in NYC. And, we see clearly that the mother’s life is centered entirely on her perfect daughter, Snow. We suspect the girl is hiding something behind her shield of professed shyness.
Since I dislike spoiler alerts nearly as much as I scorn story spoilers, I won’t tell you what happens in Siracusa. But, I did leave Sicily’s fourth largest city with a solid sense of its storied, stony history, particularly enjoying the view of Lo Scoglio, the huge boulder where locals and tourists sunbathe and from which the brave dive into the Ionian Sea.
I am an addicted reader. Even though my favorite authors number in the hundreds, their supply is inadequate to the demands of my daily habit. So, I resort to random selection of books with nothing more to recommend them than a gut feeling from the cover, the blurb in the front dust jacket flap or the author photo on the back. Selecting Siracusa was even more random; a thoughtful friend gave it to me after she’d finished it on a plane trip. Aware of my addiction, my friends and family are enablers.
“Ephron,” I said, checking out the cover, “Sounds familiar.”
“You might be thinking of Nora rather than her sister Delia,” she pointed out.
What I learned after I’d finished the book astounded me. Without me knowing them by name, an entire family of Ephron writers had been impacting my life for decades. (Certainly, many of you know parts or all of this story – perhaps I wasn’t paying attention – it was all new to me.)
Delia’s parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron were acclaimed screenplay writers in the mid-20th Century. Among the dozens of Hollywood blockbusters, they wrote, many of them touched my young life. I remember watching Desk Set late one night on our little black & white Zenith television with my mother – we both loved Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. Nothing made me want to dance more than watching Fred Astaire in movies like Daddy Long Legs. And, I’ll never forget Ether Merman belting out the Irving Berlin hit and catching my first glimpse of Marilyn Monroe in There’s No Business Like Show Business.
All four of Henry and Phoebe’s daughters became successful writers. Not only did their daughter Delia write a dozens bestsellers before Siracusa (2016), she wrote the script for Michael, one of my all-time favorite movies, starring John Travolta as a loveable, dancing, down-to-earth angel. She was the screenwriter for You’ve Got Mail, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Bewitched – and I’m a sucker for feel-good movies.
Delia often collaborated on film projects with her older sister, Nora Ephron who directed both Michael and Bewitched. Nora, who died in 2012, was even more successful in Hollywood than Delia, nominated three times for the Academy Award for best screenplay – for Silkwood, for When Harry Met Sally and for Sleepless in Seattle.
Digesting the amassed volume of Ephron books and screenplays that had touched my life, I had a hunch there was more. I finally found what I was looking for, tucked in with the f’s rather than the e’s. Nora Ephron’s 1975 classic Crazy Salad. Subtitled Some Things About Women, it’s Ephron’s hilarious take on the 1960s and 70s, covering media, politics, beauty products and women’s bodies. My mother had given it to me four decades ago. I’m chagrined for not remembering because she pointed out the famous line in the first chapter. Entitled ‘A Few Words About Breasts’, Nora Ephron proclaims: “If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that.”
The Ephron family isn’t finished with me. I have yet to read any of a dozen novels written by Delia’s and Nora’s young sister, Amy Laura Ephron. Although it’s likely I’ve run across one of her essays in the New York Times, the LA Times, National Lampoon, The Huffington Post or Vogue. Well probably not Vogue – despite my mother’s attempts to turn me into an enlightened male, I don’t read many fashion magazines.
And, I will now make a point of checking out the mystery and suspense section of the bookstore where Hallie, the middle Ephron sister, has nearly a dozen books, including four that were nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award: Never Tell a Lie, There Was an Old Woman, Come and Find Me, and Night Night, Sleep Tight.
My Ephron family odyssey all started with one book from a thoughtful friend. Sagan was so right about books taking you on a voyage.
Footnote: Since I’m uncertain of which one is Delia in the family photo (above), I reluctantly submit this photo of her, from the book jacket of Siracusa. It’s not that I don’t like dogs, but I’m disinclined to pick-up a book featuring a photo of the author posing with his or her pet. (Come to think of it, both Jim Harrison and Todd Walton posed with their dogs — maybe some sexist tendencies crept in despite my mother’s efforts.)