Francesca Giacco’s exceptional use of language in “Six Days in Rome” creates an immensely nuanced protagonist in Emilia, as we travel with her not just through the streets and piazzas of the ancient city, but all the tumbling thoughts inside her head. Emilia’s mind seamlessly slips from childhood memories to her intense relationship and devastating breakup with a man named Michael back in New York, and her present as she navigates both Rome and an intriguing relationship with an expat named John.
In terms of plot, we learn right off from Emilia, “I’m here for just a few days, alone. The trip was planned months ago, for and with someone else. But he’s gone now, in a way that’s finally starting to feel comfortable or natural or at least not a constant source of pain. He’s gone and I’m very much not.” The truth, we discover, is that her mind continually returns to this relationship with Michael, and she is far from over and done with it. Emilia’s many references to him reveal as much: “Especially maddening about Michael: the way he slowly, incrementally made himself essential … It all comes back to power. I always wanted it, almost never had it. And even when I did, when Michael would look at me like I’d given him some precious, impossible gift, I never kept it for long.”
Emilia is seeking clarity not just in her relationship with her ex-lover, but that with her father as well, who looms large throughout the novel. Each memory seems to circle around the slippery “truth” of the nature of their connection. Did he love her, support her, take advantage of her, underestimate her, did he over-demand? We can’t quite pin it down. He is a wildly successful and famous musician … doted upon, and lots is forgiven that would not be in someone considered less extraordinary. Emblematic of the different ways to see their relationship is a song he creates called “Chaos,” in which he took four lines of a poem Emilia wrote as a child and transformed them into lyrics for a song that became integral to skyrocketing his career. It remains uncomfortably unclear whether her father’s acquisition is a form of flattery or a harmful act of stealing.
Amid her meanderings, Emilia meets John, an American expat who, it turns out, has run away from his own significant pain. Giacco’s superb prose exactly captures Emilia’s response to their connection. For instance, after an evening of connection she says, “This is dangerous, such reliance on touch and attention from another person … I can’t tell if this clarity, this focus that John has given me, is real or some apparition I’ll scold myself for later. But I also know that, at least historically, this feeling doesn’t last. Intimacy, for me, has a shelf life of something expensive and temperamental, like peonies in April or heirloom tomatoes in August, so ripe they’re almost rotten.” Although their connection unveils the pain they both feel, caused by their individual histories, John is part of the impetus for Emilia to reconsider herself in a new light.
Yet the push for self-reflection is not just this relationship, but rather the whole trip, the majority of which she spends by herself. Asked about what inspired her book, Giacco says in an interview, “I knew I wanted to capture the experience of traveling alone, and how it forces us to see the world and ourselves in a different, heightened way. We notice details we’d never stop to consider at home: We have conversations with strangers. Memories present themselves in a new light. I was also interested in how a trip like this could be transformative for someone, maybe even revelatory.” However, Giacco skillfully keeps us guessing how much we can trust Emilia’s perspective along her journey of self-discovery. Emilia acknowledges that she rewrites history, and at times misrepresents herself: “There’s comfort in it, knowing I can reliably become more than I am.”
The book is also a love poem to an ancient city. Giacco’s sensational sensory descriptions capture what it feels like to experience Rome’s famous and off-the-beaten-path sights in the sultry July heat, as well as the city’s sounds, touch, smells, and particularly its tastes. Here is one mouthwatering two-liner during a meal: “I wrap some of the bucatini around my fork, glistening with tomato and oil and fat and cheese. I taste spice and salt and hear a little crunch.”
Giacco’s prose keeps us turning the page not because of an explosive plot but for the intimacy she creates between us and Emilia so that we become enraptured in her nuanced journey and, ultimately, deeply care about where she’s been … and where she might be going.
“Six Days in Rome: A Novel,” by Francesca Giacco. Available at Edgartown Books and online, $28. Giacco will give a book talk at Edgartown Books from 2 to 4 pm on Saturday, August 6.