When Beth and Cesare meet one untroubled summer on the small Greek Island of Paros "floating in the Aegean like a song," they
begin an affair that will last for more than two decades. The attraction is instant, the love between them a formidable force, "the draw, the pull, the urgency behind the love – the desire to conquer the impossible." The blond-haired, blue-eyed Beth is only
eighteen years old when she meets the dark, swarthy Cesare on some steps leading up to a whitewashed pensione. His eyes lock onto hers for an instant only, but long enough for her to feel a shock and a stab
- "and then nothing was the same."
Cesare is from Citts, a small rich town nestled into the foothills of the Alps, famous for it's industry of socks and shoes. His moneyed family is resolutely embedded in the old-world, with five and twenty generations behind them. For Cesare, Beth represents a refreshing change from his parents traditional sensibilities; she's so different, so young, and modern and carefree; almost like "a prism, always reflecting new light."
Beth's mother died in a car crash in Turkey when Beth was three, and her
father raised her on a Pennsylvanian hippie commune. Yet Beth constantly fights to free herself from the strictures of her youth, and it comes as no surprise that when she falls in love
in Italy, the whole experience makes her eager, anxious and giddy.
Beth knows she will never be accepted into Cesare's time-honored family. She tries to get him to come to America - and for one year Cesare actually does - but his life back in Italy has already been decided for him, and he must follow the customary path, even though he grew up dreaming of the big roads of America "of which Simon and Garfunkel sang - a place where people did what they chose and anyone could become anything."
Martha McPhee exquisitely moves her characters backwards and forwards in time – from the early 1970s to 2017 - the climax coming at the beginning of the novel, when Beth loses her life in the World Trade Center on 9/11. It's a shocking revelation, because for most of their lives, Cesare and Beth have been reinforced by a shared adversity, forever joined in mutual respect.
Cesare and Beth are buoyed by abundance, risk, experimentation and discovery, yet they seem to be incapable of transcending the strictures of their respective countries and actually being happy together. She falls sweetly, deeply,
and permanently for him, while he loves her for her lack of sophistication and style; "she is the Stature of Liberty, he's the Roman Empire."
Beth is desperate for Cesare to at least give America a try, to construct his own life separate from the
one being handed to him by his family, while he cannot escape the guilt and laziness of having his life decided for him. Eventually stubbornness and selfishness get in the way, and Beth returns to America
to become an entrepreneur, fired by her ambitious nature, the beauty of exotic food and her innate talent for cooking.
Cesare becomes a rich and prominent citizen of Citts, and he lends money, just as his father and his father's father did
before him. Both of them eventually drift into other marriages and relationships, their connection to each other tempered by occasion and by experience.
L'America is a compelling story of love and its victory over time, and how love can unpredictably steal from death. Yet the novel is also a strangely beautiful deference to art, food, intimacy, and the ineffable transatlantic bond that exists between the old world and the new, where the age-old traditionalism of Italy meets the noisy modernism of America.
Martha McPhee has written a poetic and often heart-wrenching account of a young couple habitually hindered by their own private passions, obsessions and immense appetite for life. When Cesare gets the dreaded email and learns of the catastrophic events of September 11,
2001, he must finally grapple with his feelings and, once and for all, come to terms with the realization that his love for the beautiful, beguiling Beth has indeed been immortalized, transcending time and place.