Mining the murky waters of betrayal, infidelity and misplaced passion, Andrea Lee's strikingly redolent Lost Hearts in Italy revolves around Mira Ward. At the beginning
of the novel, it is the early 1980s, and Mira, an attractive African American, has just married Nick Reiver, a blonde, blue-eyed Old New England banker.
College sweethearts, Nick and Mira have fallen instantly in love.
Now this affluent and upwardly mobile couple seems to be blessed with everything. The ambitious Nick is offered a post in Italy, determined to pursue his career in international finance. His firm also decides to treat Mira, allowing her join him in Rome.
On the flight over, Mira is upgraded to the first-class section where she meets Zenin, a billionaire working-class Italian industrialist. The attraction isn't instant, but the grandiloquent and somewhat misogynistic Zenin is intent
on seducing this exotic and striking dark-skinned beauty.
Fairly naïve and also quite flattered, Mira gives him her number, not thinking he'll call.
But when he eventually does phone, the rest of the world recedes, and she simply lets him into her life as though it's nothing more than a flicker of impulse, a flash of idle curiosity.
Mira throws herself into the affair for no good reason apart from the fact that her thoughts grow dark and jumbled when she thinks of herself alone in Rome when Nick flies off to work in other cities. The affair continues on until Nick eventually discovers the betrayal, yet all three of them are still out to pursue their own selfish agendas.
Two decades later, they're all still alive but widely separated, no longer "hagridden by lust and jealousy," grown older, lazier and less exacting about their pleasures. Mira has sunk her roots into Italy, immersing herself in the controlled chaos of a new family and work,
recollecting the affair with a type of whimsical nostalgia, "not so much for love but for being young."
Nick has a beautiful second wife and two girls in addition to their own daughter Maddie, and
he has hidden himself amongst the glass and steel corporate wilderness of Canary
Wharf or Wall Street. Zenin has encapsulated himself in his money and prestige, "the vast yet hermetic universe of product wealth and chance."
Lost Hearts in Italy provides a devastatingly bleak look at the disintegration of a marriage, the dissolution made all the more tragic because there was no good reason for Mira to have the affair in the first place.
The betrayal was indeed unique in the world.
From city to city - London, Venice, Rome, New York and Hong Kong - Lee tells her story through shifting perspectives, not just through Mira, Nick and Zenin, but also through various minor players – a sister, a brother, a waiter, even an airline steward – as she steadily builds a defensive wall of memories, a gallery of life in two continents.
Her characters seem to be defined by materialistic needs rather than any meaningful connection to the world
- their lives are defined by glamour, wealth and prestige. The sad fact is that Nick realizes early on that he can never hope to compete with Zenin.
He ends up collapsing into the metropolis of certainty when he realizes Zenin is just too powerful a force in Mira's life.
In their youths, Zenin, Nick and Mira had one thing in common other than a susceptibility to passion: a rather stubborn, bourgeois attachment to life and its consolations. In contrast, their middle age has somewhat tempered them.
Everything is now cushioned with a relativity, going beyond forgiveness and bitterness. For them falling in love was easy; it is falling out of love that is hard.