In 1996, a fire broke out somewhere inside the empty Fenice opera house in Venice. The opera house was being restored, and was supposed to reopen within a month. When the fire broke out, a million things went swiftly and horribly wrong: the interior of the opera house was littered with open paint cans, chemicals, and cloths, making accidental fire an inevitability, and the fire alarm was disabled. The canal next to the Fenice had been drained recently, and because of this the fire boats weren’t even able to reach the building at first, and then had no immediate water supply. They had to collect water from the Grand Canal and bring it over by helicopter – by then, the opera house was in flames and there was no way to stop it. The fire department had to focus on keeping the fire from spreading to the rest of the very flammable city, and as a result the inhabitants of Venice were forced to watch, weeping, as the centuries-old opera house burned to the ground in front of them.
That’s the opening scene of The City of Falling Angels, and it’s the best part of the book. Berendt describes people watching the destruction of the opera house as they try to keep their own homes from catching fire, and the most anyone can do is watch the fire and cry, while every now and then we get lines like, “A deafening crash resounded in the depths of the Fenice. The great crystal chandelier had fallen to the floor.” (Fair warning: if you don’t understand why people would weep at the destruction of an opera house, this is not your book)
Three days later, enter John Berendt, who sees the effects the Fenice fire has had on the residents of Venice and decides that it might make a good subject for a book. He spends the next eight years living in Venice to interview people about the fire and everything else in their lives, because he’s John Berendt and he can do that. He interviews judges, restoration experts, lawyers, and just about everyone who witnessed the fire (they include an Italian count and an elderly glassblower). People suspect that the Fenice fire was arson, possibly the result of the Mafia. The investigation is long and very interesting, and it’s the start of a really good mystery.
Only the start of one, unfortunately. If this book had just been about the Fenice fire, the investigation, and the restoration process, it would have been really interesting and illuminating. But Berendt just can’t stay focused. He meanders from one plot to the next, like he’s trying to keep up with the “Look How Many Zany Eccentrics I Can Find” cred he established in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Although here, “Zany Eccentrics” is replaced by “Obscenely Rich Expatriate Snobs.” One man Berendt meets at a party excitedly explains to him how an aristocracy is the best form of government, because then all the good leadership qualities get passed down through one family. Another woman belongs to a family of expats who first moved to Venice in the 1800s when Boston got too goddamned Irish for their tastes (Berendt states this more diplomatically, but that’s the gist).
He can’t focus his story on the Fenice. He talks about the fire and the investigation for a while, then suddenly he’s spending fifteen pages telling us about a glassblower’s family drama. Then thirty-eight pages on the previously-mentioned expat family. Then forty-nine pages on Ezra Pound’s aging mistress and her efforts to keep his papers and letters from being stolen by the so-called “Ezra Pound Foundation.” Here we break for a short revisit to the Fenice fire, and then he spends forty-two pages telling us all about the drama between two guys in charge of the American non-profit group Save Venice. Then thirty pages on a suicidal poet.
Yes, I counted all of those pages. No, none of those side stories have anything to do with the Fenice fire. No, none of them are even mildly interesting, except maybe the Pound one. Yes, every single conflict Berendt shows us is explored in nitpicking depth, and then dropped without a satisfying conclusion. Yes, it is irritating.
I think, ultimately, the problem with this book was that it was presented wrong. I went into it expecting an in-depth investigation of a real-life mystery: the Fenice fire. Instead, I got a wandering, often overly-detailed look at the inhabitants of Venice and their daily drama. Which is fine – if that’s what I’d expected to get out of this book. Had Berendt written this book as a series of essays on Venice, that would have been good. If he had presented the book as a portrait of Venetians and been more clear about the fact that the Fenice fire was more of a subplot, that would have also been fine. As things are, however, I was not expecting most of what I was shown in this book, and it was disappointing.
That being said, I really really want to go to Venice now.
Verdict: three out of five stars