The Chapel

Title: The Chapel
Published by: Counterpoint
Release Date: April 2015
Pages: 275
ISBN13: 978-1619024950
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Recently widowed, unhappily stuck on a pricey whiplash tour of Italy, Elizabeth Berman comes face to face with the first documented painting of a teardrop in human history, and in the presence of that tearful mother, and the arresting company of the renowned and anonymous women painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel, she wakes up to the possibility that she is not lost.

Mitchell left me everything, just as he promised. “Everything,” he liked to say during his last month on the sofa, “everything will be yours,” as if it wasn’t yet. I was left with that and two adult children who could not tolerate my sitting in my home by myself—admittedly, rather too often in a capacious pink flannel nightgown and the green cardigan Mitchell was wearing on the afternoon he died.

That’s how Elizabeth winds up on a tour better suited to her late-husband, a Dante scholar. Mitchell masterminded the itinerary as a surprise for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Itching to leave as soon as she arrives in Padua, Elizabeth’s efforts to book a ticket home are stymied by her aggressively supportive children, the ministrations of an incomprehensibly Italian hotel staff, and the prospect of forfeiting the sizable chunk of cash she shelled out for the trip. But there are consolations—arugula pizza and ancient arcades and Aperol spritzes in the piazza with her odd lot of fellow castaways.

Instead of deconstructing their disappointing former lives, they are drawn together by their longing to understand how something beautiful is made. They dive headlong into the Arena Chapel, trying to untangle Giotto himself, whose frescoes in Padua secured his reputation as the world’s greatest painter.

Michael Downing has devised a divine romantic comedy. Tracking the hopes and heartaches and hangovers of a woman with a history of disappearing, The Chapel shows us that happiness is as fragile as a fresco by Giotto.

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"On a package trip to Italy, recently widowed Elizabeth Berman discovers that it’s never too late to leave a regrettable past behind, and that in the right place at the right time the condition we call “older but wiser” comprises more joy than sorrow. The Chapel is a rich and rewarding novel, by turns comic, thoughtful, nostalgic, and exuberant. I only put it down to browse airfares to Italy."
—Valerie Martin, author of Property and Mary Reilly

"There are art lessons, history lessons, and life lessons here, and the amazing and original thing is how all the entanglements sustain the possibility of romance. Michael Downing gives us a witty female narrator with the smarts to make us trust her story—an Italianate dream about beauty and grief, Giotto and Dante, heaven and hell, in which everything gets all mixed up and keeps morphing into something else. It’s bumper cars with biscotti and Prosecco. And when you laugh, it’s because you’ve been hit by something that altered your course, something unexpected, inevitable, and true."
—Dennis McFarland, author of Nostalgia and Singing Boy

"Beginning with the purgatory of a bus tour of Italy, and an unlikely heroine in a wrinkled shirtdress who is carrying her dead husband’s Dante manuscript in a suitcase, Michael Downing has created a novel that is at once romantic and anti-romantic. It’s moving, funny, and memorable: a tale of the baggage we all travel with, a portrait of grief and regeneration, and a bittersweet love story in which the beloved is a 700-year-old work of art."
—Joan Wickersham, author of The News from Spain and The Suicide Index

"At last, a love story for adults - wrapped in a sophisticated mystery about art, religion and the fragility of the human heart. This is Michael Downing's witty, bracing love letter to the country that gave us Giotto and Dante, and to a small group of Americans, traveling with a certain amount of baggage, who've gone to Italy fleeing their own private sorrows, only to find what they didn't know they'd been looking for. Downing's rendering of this exquisite world is so rich and authentic you might wake from this dream of a novel and feel you've actually been there."
—Elizabeth Benedict, author of Almost and The Practice of Deceit, editor of What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts that Mattered Most

"Downing’s latest work combines art, art history, and Italian allure into a cerebral romance channeling love, loss, and the complexities of emotional closure. Liz Berman, widowed by her husband Mitchell, still mourns the recent loss, though her two adult children refuse to allow the 50-something ex-librarian from New England to dismiss her 35th wedding anniversary, a “month-long Italian adventure” family vacation, which had been planned before his death. To honor the fact that Mitchell had been penning a book on Dante, Liz, somewhat reluctantly, embarks on a grand tour of Padua accentuated by an eccentric gaggle of travelling intellectual artists—including a flirty silver-haired doctor named T, who persuades her to travel further with him instead of returning home, much to the chagrin of her concerned children. Light melodrama plays out against a backdrop of the exquisite scenery of the Arena Chapel, Giotto di Bondone’s famous frescoes, and Italy’s general majesty, which all work their magic on Liz and lull her into a mesmerized state of awe and romantic delusion. Snapping her out of it is a revelation that hits close to home—and reminds her that her real life awaits back in Cambridge, with or without T.  Line drawings, photographs, blueprints, and some exceptionally witty prose and banter complement this affecting story . . . vividly entertaining.
Publishers Weekly

"When Elizabeth’s husband dies, he leaves her everything. Included in the neatly organized inheritance is their house in Cambridge, trust funds for their grown children, a suitcase full of notes for the book on Dante he never wrote, and a trip to Italy, fully planned, with all expenses paid. Elizabeth has no desire to travel, and it is only due to her daughter’s insistence that she joins the tour group in Padua. There, when not scheming to get back home, she becomes enamored with Giotto’s chapel fresco and a handsome but mysterious doctor known only as T. Like Elizabeth, T is struggling with loss and loneliness, and their companionship provides comfort to both. While studying the fresco and spending time in T’s company, Elizabeth comes to startling conclusions about her life and marriage. Downing’s rich descriptions of the chapel in Padua and fastidious art lectures are reminiscent of the work of Dan Brown, but the mysteries here are mostly of the heart. This story of life after loss delivers equal measures of history and hope."

“Under the spell of Giotto's celestial frescoes in Padua, Italy, a waspish American widow grapples with the emotional and intellectual baggage left behind after her husband's death . . . Though she never wanted to take the trip, Liz finds herself swept along by the art and the unpredictable encounters. Much of the conversation is about Dante's Divine Comedy and its relationship to Giotto's frescoes in Padua's Arena Chapel. Clever, acerbic Liz is both terse and obliquely flirtatious with the many men she meets who tend, surprisingly, to be voluble, kindly and sometimes sexy . . . . Photos, stick-figure sketches, comical Italian-accented English, intellectual freight, metaphors that turn literal and some good jokes pepper this novel, which is playful and erudite . . .”
Kirkus Reviews