Susan Swan, What Casanova Told Me (Bloomsbury, 2005)

I keep finding interesting examples of contemporary historical fiction in my Green Man mailbox! What Casanova Told Me is one of these. I am writing this review from the Advance Reading Copy, which Bloomsbury/Holtzbrinck sent us several weeks ago. I think it fell behind the package-sorting table and languished there until one of the brownies found it while she was cleaning. The hardcover is readily available in the usual places.

Like Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which I'll be reviewing later this summer, What Casanova Told Me utilizes journals and letters from an earlier period in history to tell a story that is embedded within a story set in the present time. The principal character in present time is a young, single woman named Luce Adams, descendent of the second and sixth Presidents of the United States (John and John Quincy Adams). Trained as an archivist and based in Toronto, Luce travels to Europe with her late mother's lover, Lee Pronski. The trip has two major purposes: Luce is delivering some primary historical documents to a library in Venice and both women are attending a memorial ceremony on the island of Crete for Luce's archaeologist mother, who died there in an auto accident. For most of their shared journey, the relationship between Luce and Lee is, well, strained. I think it would be safe to say that each woman is jealous of the other, albeit for different reasons.

The primary historical documents form the story inside the story. They include a journal written by Luce's great-great-great-great-great aunt, Asked For Adams (fictitious second cousin of John), while she was traveling in Venice with her father in 1797 (around the time that Napoleon's army invades that city); a packet of letters written by Jacob Casanova (yes, that Casanova) to his friend Isaac Bey in Venice; and a leatherbound book written in an Arabic-style script. Swan interleaves narrative relating the present-time experiences of Luce and Lee with Asked For's journal entries and Casanova's letters. These tell of a deep friendship that over time becomes a sexual union. (Seriously, how could anyone resist the notorious Casanova, even at his advanced age?) The leatherbound book remains an unsolved mystery until fairly late in the novel, when Luce finds someone in Istanbul to translate it.

I found the historical characters quite engaging, in part, I think, because their writing is in the first person. Asked For comes across as a resilient, resourceful young woman---perhaps a little too modern in her behavior, attitudes and language for the period. Swan's portrayal of Casanova is very sympathetic---while he is a bit of a rascal, he is also gracious and courtly and seems to provide his female companions with an appreciation of their own physical pleasure that many would appreciate. The historical Casanova would have been 72 in 1797. I imagine him to resemble the John Neville portrayal of Baron Munchausen in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, an elderly gentleman who seems to grow younger when he's in the presence of female beauty.

I had a lot more trouble getting engaged in the present-time story of Luce Adams and Lee Pronski. Swan writes about them in the third person, usually from Luce's viewpoint, but occasionally from Lee's, in an apparent attempt to help the reader see each woman through the other's eyes and to present each in a somewhat sympathetic light. Although Swan's descriptions of Venice and Athens and the Cretan countryside provide a rich and entertaining backdrop, the real journey here seems to be one of mutual discovery and appreciation. These women scarcely knew each other before making arrangements to travel together. Their common link is Luce's late mother Kitty, whose research interests concerned matriarchal cultures and religions. Both women appear to have significant unresolved issues about their relationships to Kitty and feelings of guilt about her death. Alas, I found Luce to be sulky and immature, a little too hung up about finding romantic love (she uses a pendulum for the first time ever to find out if one male she meets finds her attractive). Lee actually made more sense to me as a character, although I didn't need to know quite so many details about her experiences with menopause.

Susan Swan is an associate professor of Humanities at York University in Toronto. She's written three other novels. All of them seem to incorporate themes of friendships and other relationships between men and women (or women and women). All appear to have a historical component, if we can agree that the 1950s and 1960s are historical.

What Casanova Told Me strikes me as the kind of novel a reader might carry around in her shoulder bag while traveling or commuting. It's relatively short and would lend itself to reading in short pieces punctuated with life's various interruptions.

[Donna Bird]