(One of the) Best Things I’ve Read in the Past Year

25 Jan

The moment I loved best in Michelle Orange’s Sicily Papers (published by Short Flight/Long Drive Books, a division of Hobart) was this:

But I’m terribly nostalgic. Been that way since I could pronounce it. Always afraid of time passing, hating change. I tell this story a lot but I remember feeling like my world was ending when my dad changed our kitchen garbage bag under the sink from a paper bag that sat on the floor of the cupboard to one of these new-fangled plastic jobs that screwed into the inside of the door. I was inconsolable, I begged him not to do it. I felt it was the end of an era. Everything was before and after for me. I was four years old.

I can’t be the only person out there who absolutely identifies with Orange’s expression of loss, of terror of the unknown and new and different. When my parents painted our kitchen cabinets white (over a color I can only describe as rotten avocado), I was totally thrown off. I was also four or five. What’s so perfect about Orange’s above passage is the specificity of the moment, the tiny thing that completely upset her.

This relatable specificity runs throughout the pages of this compact volume chronicling a month in Italy (it’s made to look like a passport! gold stamping and everything!). Orange’s wry humor makes me want to sit down with her over a cup of coffee and laugh. She writes in real time, so we learn about the bros that sit near her on her flight—one of them is looking forward to “hott” Swedish girls—and her terror of an “ancient white spider” in her skirt while she’s resting near some ruins. She sounds like that friend you have that’s crazy enough to always be fun but stable enough to be able to listen and give some kind of meaningful advice.

She’s also not afraid to confess her fears and shortcomings or to express her displeasure or bouts of dislike for B, the person to whom she’s addressing all of the letters in The Sicily Papers. We don’t learn too much about B. We assume that Orange and B are together, in some sense of the word, since she talks about missing B, wishes B were with her in certain moments, chastises B for not writing her more. But it’s apparent she’s in love to some degree. She plans to surprise B in New York at the end of her trip in Italy. My stomach turns a bit when I read this. There’s just something about not seeing B’s replies. There’s something about what we don’t read, even in Orange’s letters. It’s what’s left unsaid. Orange is meticulous in describing lava formations (she uses the word credenza!), the faces of young Italian boys, and the awkward configuration of her first apartment’s shower (too many windows for construction workers to peep through). The letters are firmly not love letters to B. There is no pining for B’s presence. Orange writes that every year she has extended her stay in Italy, attempting to retain the peace and relaxation the vacation gives her Italy is her love affair. She expresses distaste for the 9-to-5 grind and yearns for the sunny carefree-ness of Italy. Of course, she has a vacationer’s view, even though she sticks to small towns and shuns hotels in favor of apartments. She improves her Italian and practices her French. She chats with locals and suns on beaches. She doodles to B while taking a break from tours of ruins and catacombs. It’s no wonder she prefers this life to Toronto.

Yet she’s restless. Orange never stays in one town for very long before she’s picking up and moving on. She gives herself no chance to settle, to nest, to make more lasting connections with those around her. Is this what she savors? She writes to B that she loves traveling by train—“Something about being trapped in motion.”—and her later ferry ride enchants her. She glories in moveable stasis, where all she has to do is go with the flow. Her love of this type of travel, the limbo it puts her in, loops right back to her fear of change when she was younger, her current fears of change. While she’s on a train or ferry, things remain relatively the same. When she disembarks, that’s when she’ll need to engage with the wider world.

The Sicily Papers captures Orange in her 20-something limbo. She yearns for her group of friends from when she was 20: “I miss those people, that group of friends I had. That was the happiest time in my life. That’s the last time I remember feeling that I had a network of people around me I really liked and trusted.” After college and without grad school, it can be difficult to recreate that network of friendship and trust and love and support. Orange isn’t necessarily desperate for this company, but her touch of melancholy pervades the book and pulls a cloud or two over the brilliant Italian sun.

But Italy is that privileged space that lets her decompress and write and wander and eat fruit and admire Italian style (especially how leather jacket-clad teenage boys greet each other with cheek kisses). She, for the most part, eschews technology and e-mail in favor of old-fashioned, molasses-slow letter-writing. Everything was before and after for her, but Orange has found a way to escape that terrifying dichotomy: she travels to Italy so she can put time on hold and live in the in-between.

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2 Responses to “(One of the) Best Things I’ve Read in the Past Year”

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