Never typecast an author. She also wrote a collection of short stories called Discovering Eve and the almost autobiographical novel Desperate Acts, the story and resolution of a long-term abusive relationship. The Italian Quartet is classed under "woman's fiction," which is a tad unfair. Although it is centered on a series of love stories, it's much more than another "chick book." And that evaluation comes from a guy who mostly reads fiction by folks like Tom Clancy and Patrick O'Brian.
The four love stories begin and end with Sara, an American writer of Italian descent, while the two in the center involve her grandmother Gelsomina, who is dispatched to America to break up an affair neither family wished the participants to continue. It is based on the actual story of the author's own grandmother. The fictional Gelsomina eventually finds herself happily married to another Italian immigrant, Sara's grandfather. The center portions tell us much not only about Italian customs but about turn-of-the-century America.
The novel begins on one of the many islands off the coast of Tuscany that include Monte Cristo and Elba. Coleman's vivid descriptions of these islands make you want to head for the travel agency. They are a part of Italy that few discuss. That those islands have been used as prisons over the years is a telling piece of symbolism.
Sara is invited to become writer in residence by the Bellini family in their island villa. Others there include a pianist and a painter. What we discover is that Olga Bellini is a control freak who dispenses much more than artistic patronage. Like her grandmother earlier, Sara falls into an unworkable love affair that becomes resolved only in the final section, set in Venice.
Sounds simple, but like many of its characters the story is deceptively complex and multi-layered.
Sara leaves the stifling influence of Olga, who is symbolic of all those who can't or won't produce anything and who want only to control those who can. Not quite Stalin and Shostakovich, but the same impulse.
And musical references abound. Coleman herself is a trained musician and accomplished harpsichordist. That Sara finds Couperin incredibly boring is a view from literally first- (and second-)hand experience with which this reviewer totally concurs.
In under 200 pages, we find not only multiple love stories and a group of interesting and believable characters, but a beautiful travel piece, cultural history and a good-sized dose of art and music appreciation. In the hands of a lesser writer all this would collapse or become lengthy and pompous. To use a musical analogy, Coleman is not Richard Strauss adding whatever he can, but Claude Debussy leaving out as much as he deems necessary.
Those fans of Coleman who know her earlier work will not be put off by a change in locale and emphasis. Those who have never read her will be rewarded by meeting one of Arizona's finest writers.