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Six Days in Rome
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Emilia arrives in Rome reeling from heartbreak and reckoning with her past. What was supposed to be a romantic trip has, with the sudden end of a relationship, become a solitary one instead. As she wanders, music, art, food, and the beauty of Rome's wide piazzas and narrow streets color Emilia's dreamy, but weighty experience of the city. She considers the many facets of her life, drifting in and out of memory, following her train of thought wherever it leads.
While climbing a hill near Trastevere, she meets John, an American expat living a seemingly idyllic life. They are soon navigating an intriguing connection, one that brings pain they both hold into the light.
As their intimacy deepens, Emilia starts to see herself anew, both as a woman and as an artist. For the first time in her life, she confronts the ways in which she's been letting her father’s success as a musician overshadow her own. Forced to reckon with both her origins and the choices she's made, Emilia finds herself on a singular journey—and transformed in ways she never expected.
Equal parts visceral and cerebral, Six Days in Rome is an ode to the Eternal City, a celebration of art and creativity, and a meditation on self-discovery.
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One does not love in order to dominate and conquer life—life being just a silent sequence of woes, interrupted, but not mitigated, by ephemeral sparks of distressing exaltation.
Miracles were rare, but they did happen—the approaching step of her Beloved seemed to be one.
—Anna Banti, "La Signorina"
How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?
―Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers
My name is everywhere here.
It's given to thin, dead-end streets, out-of-the-way piazzas, churches in need of repair. I see it used to advertise perfume on the side of a bus and sprayed in hot-pink paint on the side of an ancient building, a declaration of hate or love.
I've never been Em. Or Emma. Or Emily. Or anything but Emilia.
No nicknames, abbreviations, or shortcuts. Even at times when it would have been easy to settle for any of those alternatives, I've insisted, corrected people's pronunciation, written in the right spelling on class rosters and preprinted name tags. It's always mattered to me. I'm unwilling to compromise.
I follow one of my namesake streets, shaded by laundry hanging from balconies. A church bell rings somewhere.
The sun is relentless, the heat inescapable. It is the middle of the afternoon, the middle of summer. The bougainvillea will continue to weave its way around doorframes and windows and climb the walls for months. Walls that must have always been that Roman shade of orange. That color I've never seen anywhere else.
I'm here for just a few days, alone. The trip was planned months ago, for and with someone else. But he's gone now, in a way that's finally starting to feel comfortable or natural or at least not a constant source of pain. He's gone and I'm very much not.
I move at my own pace. My face is still, my mouth relaxed, just short of a smile. The soles of my sandals slap the stone beneath me too loudly, even when I try to take lighter steps. I hear lunch dishes being washed behind closed windows and cracked-open doors.
There are no tourist attractions in this part of the city, no famous fountains or recognizable relics. No remarkable view from anywhere. It is the sliver of time in the afternoon when everyone sleeps. I am walking just to walk, the sharp incline stretching the backs of my legs. The sun hits my bare arms, the base of my neck in a way I know will tan, not burn.
A group of monks passes to my left, speaking softly, taking deep drags of their cigarettes. Two of the five look up to smile at me. I purse my lips in chaste response, wondering how much they must be sweating under their robes, that unyielding black polyester. Their designer sunglasses and expensive watches catch the light.
My past-tense love, the man who's not here but should be, was raised Roman Catholic. Once an altar boy. Still wears and maybe believes in the golden saint on a chain around his neck. He claimed to have briefly, decades ago, considered the seminary. Months earlier, while looking over my shoulder as I bought our plane tickets, he mused out loud: "I love seeing priests and nuns in Rome. They always look so happy, like they just won the lottery." His hand enclosed my shoulder. "Comforting, isn't it? That kind of certainty." Then, after a sip of wine: "No, it's better than the lottery. It's like getting tenure. Everlasting tenure, forever and ever, amen."
I imagine what these monks might say if I told them about him, if any of them would hear my lapsed confession.
A stream of water, likely from one of the faucets or fountains I see everywhere, winds its way through the stones under my feet. Downhill now, moving effortlessly. I envy its gravity. The only rule it needs to follow.
It's either the time of day or some wrong turn I've taken, but I'm suddenly surrounded by people. I was expecting the shade and quiet of Via Giulia, but it's nowhere to be found. Tour guides hold neon flags and yell into clipped-on microphones. Men speaking Italian as a third or fourth language point at laminated maps. Perched on a low wall, her back to the river, a woman in a long, dirty skirt plays "Hotel California" for tourists on an electric guitar. Her bare feet dangle.
An older Italian couple catches my eye and doesn't let me go. The man approaches me slowly, warily, but with purpose. Like I'm his best worst option.
"Quale strada per la Fontana di Trevi?" they ask me in unison, their faces as wide and hopeful as open windows.
They think I'm one of them, that I know this city, or at least that I speak their language. Like any American abroad looking to blend in, I feel a jolt of pride.
This has been happening a lot, often enough that I've looked up my response in Italian and practiced my pronunciation in the mirror of the rental apartment. Mi dispiace, non parlo italiano. Or, if I'm feeling confident: Non parlo molto bene l'italiano.
But now, when it matters, I freeze. I shrug my shoulders, let them down. My face blooms red and I turn away, leaving them to search for someone else.
Crossing the Tiber, no shelter from the sun. I pick up my pace toward the thick shade of the trees in Trastevere, weaving around groups of people, held still by all that surrounds them.
I hear a few familiar seconds of Tom Waits from a car window before the light changes and it's gone. His low growl, a voice I've heard many times: both slow and sad on this recording and light, laughing at one of my dad's jokes, midcigarette on the terrace at my parents' house. "The night does funny things inside a man," he sings.
I close my eyes for a moment. I see a dark bar, mercifully cool in the middle of a heat wave, pint glasses slick with condensation, me sitting beside a man who knows every word of this song. A body starting to become familiar, whose bad singing voice and furrowed brow I'm starting to love.
Tom Waits, that song, that man, that bar: all parts of a subtle chorus of memory. A web of songs and poems and late nights and early mornings that twist and change and never quite disappear. They're fossils, tokens. Badges of honor, or not.
Aside from ordering a drink or asking for more olive oil or mumbling scusi every time my elbow brushes a person passing by, when is the next time I'll truly speak to someone else?
Maybe all Roman brides are serene. This one is.
I watch her from the café, at one of the outdoor tables that's still catching the last of the early evening sun, in the middle of the island in the middle of the river. I can see details that someone walking by might miss, like having good seats at a play. Her dress flashes with cheap sequins or crystals, scattered across the waist and skirt like an afterthought. The fabric is gathered between her shoulder blades, pinching. The light hits her square in the face, but she doesn't even squint. Her gaze is distant, focused on something that's invisible to me.
The stone paving this piazza is sloped, a defiant, imperfect tilt toward the river on one side. This café seems built into the dip, old books wedged under table legs to compensate. The church is at the center of the square, flat on its own thick foundation, a nonnegotiable.
A child, maybe hers, chases one of the groomsmen around the square in a makeshift game of tag. Her mother, or soon-to-be mother-in-law, talks loudly on a cell phone, too quickly and far away for me to try to understand.
There's none of the hushed drama that comes with American weddings, no pageantry, no nerves. The mood is calm and still, in deference to the higher power at work here—if not God, then maybe just familiarity, the inevitability of two compatible or similar people being together. Making promises, eyes shining, in front of a select few.
The groom is lingering by the door, not giving her the reverence we've been taught that brides deserve. He shows no signs of becoming overwhelmed or tearing up when seeing her in a white dress. Even the thought of something that choreographed or contrived feels laughable here, watching them. He's seen her before, will see her again. The white dress, what it purports to mean, pales against what these ancient walls are holding up, what they've kept out and let through. There doesn't even seem to be a photographer.
The untouchable look on her face, as if she were floating just an inch above the rest of us: it's familiar. Her gaze like those of the saints I'm starting to see immortalized in frescoes and mosaics all over this city. Eyes focused far away, sure of some delicious secret.
I've been to Rome once before, but years ago and never alone. My parents brought my brother and me when he was eight and I was twelve. We stayed in an apartment by the Spanish Steps, furnished with hanging tapestries and thick rugs and delicate, antique furniture. The wooden beams that framed the doorways and held up the ceiling were from the owner's family house in Puglia. I remember being fascinated by that, how pieces of one home could be used to support another.
One day, there was a guided tour of the Vatican: giggling at Swiss guards, running through the gardens, a few minutes in the Sistine Chapel, necks stretched, before being ushered out. I sped through the museum, doing a quick scan of each room, picking my favorite piece before moving on, while my brother listened intently to descriptions of brushstrokes and marble quarries, patronages and papal states, the artist's connection to the church and all it meant. He got as close as possible, his face sometimes only inches from a painting or sculpture.
A breeze slips its way across my skin, still damp with my sweat and water from a fountain I passed on my walk here, a wolf's head carved out of stone. I let it fill my hands, splashed it on my arms and face, threw the rest on the back of my neck so it dripped between my shoulder blades, flowed down my spine. Something I'd only ever seen old Italian men do in movies.
There are empty tables behind and in front of me now, all of us keeping some distance. Even with the air, light, time of day being what it is. No one is speaking English. The glasses in everyone's hands glow red and orange with Cappelletti, Aperol, and Campari. A mother gives her baby an orange-slice garnish to chew on.
I sip an Averna, on ice with a lemon peel, my third of the day. These cocktails, their variations and what they mean, were a big part of my pre-Rome education. He made samples, playing bartender in my kitchen. Measuring out vermouth and splashing soda like an amateur chemist. I was schooled on the differences between a spritz and an Americano. A classic Negroni and a sbagliato. How delicately his tongue hit the back of his teeth at the end of that satisfying, foreign word.
His hands moved. His voice rose and fell, eyes studying my face, maybe imagining what it might look like in Italy. How it might change.
It's not surprising, that I miss him a little more each time a new drink arrives. It's hard to see an empty chair and not imagine him in it, stretching his long legs out, head tilted back a bit to feel the last of the sun on his face, his flat fingers flipping the pages of a menu.
He was present in every decision I made for this trip: the apartment, the restaurants, the day trip to Pompeii, which he'd never seen. We chose the dates to align with his birthday. Late July, even though it was, as he said, the worst time to be in Rome. I thought of what he might order for a late lunch, the hint of a smile as he read a book under a tree in the Borghese, maybe his hand on mine after we stopped for a drink and watched day turn to night, and other things I didn't even know to anticipate, that would have been surprises.
And there was the untold potential of what I might say or do or encourage, what possibilities might present themselves, to make him more devoted, convinced he'd come to the right city with the right person. I've heard time away changes relationships, gives them longevity, maybe offers a life raft. The freedom of a strange place, to be someone else, to try on whatever feels like it might fit.
The postcards I bought earlier are fanned out on the table. A ritual almost every time I go somewhere worth chronicling: write to a few people, trying to capture what I see, how being in a particular place makes me feel.
I only buy a certain breed of postcard. No "Ciao from Rome" in red, green, and white lettering. No lettering of any kind, actually. No Colosseum or Forum or any other obvious monuments. No gladiators. This eliminates a lot. The ones that meet my criteria are usually more expensive, €3.00 instead of 1.50. All chosen with their recipients in mind, in hopes the cards might live magnetized to their refrigerators, pressed between the pages of a book, or tucked away with worn ticket stubs and dusty photos and other things to keep.
One shows the Piazza Navona at night, fountains at full blast and lit with an eye for drama. Gods and horses and waves sculpted midcrash, all illuminated from below. The always-crowded square is empty, which seems impossible. No packs of tourists or restaurant hosts trolling for customers or men selling cheap toys and counterfeit handbags. Resting everything on old sheets, ready at any moment to snatch it all up and run.
Another: jasmine wrapping its way around the ancient column of a ruin, hit hard with afternoon light. And, for effect, an old woman looking out the window of an adjacent, equally crumbling building. She stares directly at whoever is taking the photograph, as if to say, So what?
The one in my hands right now: the Bocca della Verità, staring dead ahead with blank eyes, its gaping mouth meant to swallow the hand of any liar. Where did that story come from?
I drain the last of my Averna, turn the statue's wide eyes over, and write to my parents.
I'm here. Back in Rome. The beautiful mess, as Mom calls it.
I used to think you only took the two of us to the Bocca della Verità for a laugh, some Roman Holiday reenactment. Maybe you did. Do you remember how relieved Jack was when he made it out unscathed? I loved that look on his face. Like he'd won a race.
The pictures you took, the two of us side by side, made up the Christmas card that year, the year I was thirteen. For so long, it was the only picture of myself I liked. It still might be my favorite.
I know you might not really understand why I'm here. Maybe I have to come back every fifteen years or so, to make sure the place hasn't crumbled, to drink good wine and see the pope. Sounds like one of Dad's lyrics.
I love you both. I'm grateful you showed me this city first.
The words barely fit. I make my handwriting smaller as I realize how close I'm coming to the end. The sentences are cramped, a little slanted. The last few drift over to where I've written my parents' address in Hudson. Not the artfully spaced, just-spare-enough message I'd seen in my mind before I started.
Everything about this seems a little wrong, or at least odd. It's been months since I've seen them: an unseasonably warm dinner at their house, a night that still makes me shudder when I think of its details. Weeks since we've spoken: clipped conversations with my mother, nothing from him at all. I'm not sure what I'm trying to prove, sending something like this. Maybe the fact that I can rewrite history, select my memories and discard others, if that's what I decide I want.
It can be exhausting, the consideration I give whenever I write or draw or do basically anything. You could call it perfectionism or commitment, but that suggests usefulness or efficiency. Even what I just wrote: it looks sentimental, pointless almost. Too carefully balanced, with no hint of how I actually feel now, sitting here.
I slip my feet out of my sandals and rest them on the stone, something I wouldn't dream of doing at home. But here it's all smooth cobblestones and dull asphalt, worn down by slow, poetic, vague decay, instead of once-white New York sidewalks gone gray with thousands of footsteps, decades of dog shit, endless wilting bags of garbage.
The Bocca della Verità, if it had any magic at all, would have known to grab me, even twenty years ago. It would have seen what kind of liar I am. Not pathological, more creative than deceptive. Why say I read two books last week, when I can make it three? Yes, I saw that movie or met that person, ate at that restaurant, shared that opinion. A few embellishments, a catchy line of dialogue, invented in the moment. Something to make a story memorable. At worst, the lies I tell are some embarrassing combination of laziness and impatience. But also the occasional flicker of imagination. There's comfort in it, knowing I can reliably become more than I am.
Another drink arrives, though I didn't order one. Deep red, alive with carbonation, a blackberry resting on ice cubes. An older man to my left points at the drink, the tip of his finger within poking distance of the rim of the glass. He's alone at the table next to mine, but sitting only a few inches away, close enough to put his arm around me if he wanted.
"The blackberry," he says in slow Italian. "That's what they give when they like you."
Now I know the word for blackberry, by process of elimination. La mora. I pop it into my mouth, smile in the man's direction and say nothing.
The church doors open and cheers spill out from inside. Bride and groom walk quickly to a waiting car. His hand is around her waist, pulling a little. Finally, a bit of life behind her eyes, a fraction of something to lose.
I imagine an early communal dinner somewhere, maybe followed by a party for the adults. Cold red wine sweating in water glasses, children falling asleep on laps. A small band, someone's brother playing guitar.
The screen of my phone flashes a particular shade of blue, which it only ever does for one reason. For one person.
How strange, me writing to you on my birthday, asking for a gift.
I wonder if you're in Rome. I hope you are.
But what I'm asking for, and don't deserve: will you please tell me you're okay?
I should have known. This day can't possibly pass without some word from him, some nudge, some challenge. I stare at his words until the screen goes dark, then remind myself where I am. A tree bending precariously toward the river. Late light streaming through its thin leaves, making them almost translucent.
The sun setting on Michael's birthday, though he has six more hours of it than I do. We'd planned all of it this way, his birthday being our first day, waking up to Rome, to a whole new year. My hands shake a little until I trap them between my knees. Take a deep breath, stare into the light until it hurts a little.
What could I possibly say in response? That I'm delirious, with lack of sleep, with the beauty and current of this place, and wish he were next to me? With such force it almost aches? That I don't know exactly where I am or why? Why this café, this table, watching this wedding, right now?
I've always been so careful of what I say to him, and how. It's hard to write to a writer, though he'd tell me it shouldn't be, that I'm overthinking, that whatever I say is fine because it's me saying it.
I didn't sleep on the plane. I never do. If I take a pill or let an edible dissolve under my tongue, I hallucinate, instead of drifting off like I'm supposed to. If I drink enough cheap red wine to sedate myself, all I get is an exhausted hangover. My body fights all of it, like it might resist anesthesia or a blindfold.
The man next to me slept from takeoff to landing. All eight hours and twenty minutes. He was one of those, the kind of person who's out as soon as the landing gear folds in on itself. A sound and sensation I've always found soothing, though never so much as to put me to sleep. His mouth stayed open for the whole flight, gaping in my direction with no air seeming to flow in or out. His expression so open and empty I wanted to slap him awake.
When I did finally fall asleep, it was in the taxi from Termini to the apartment I'd rented for six days in Monti. Well, technically, Michael had chosen the place and paid the deposit, after a meticulous online search. We needed a quiet street, high ceilings, a decent kitchen, a big enough bed. In this neighborhood, never that one. Most important, a balcony. He never asked for his money back. I never offered.
"Signorina! Signorina?" The driver woke me in time to see a few seconds of the Colosseum. I tilted my head upward, leaning into the turn of the car, then weakly met his eyes in gratitude. An odd, but charming gesture. Something that almost surely gets him a bigger tip. One of the carabinieri guarding the barricade, thousands of years of history behind him, yawned into the hand not gripping his machine gun.
This trip was supposed to be important, maybe even monumental. There were certain touchstones I planned on passing, checking them off in my mind like mile markers in a race. Him seeing me paralyzed by jet lag, needing a shower, battling no sleep, a foreign language, maybe a lost suitcase, and loving me anyway, being glad he came. The two of us bickering over where to go when, whether to window shop along Via Condotti or walk the twenty minutes to the modern art museum. A verbal tic or pointless worry or slowing pace that would charm, then irritate, then charm him again. Things I'd been told were harbingers of intimacy, a word I pretend to cringe at but secretly worship like some powerful, unknowable deity.
Being in Rome, this was supposed to be different.
I've walked the length of London Bridge in the deep cold of a December night, wind blowing my mind blank. I've stretched my legs in the grass by the Canal Saint-Martin, sipping lukewarm rosé from a plastic cup, catching the last of the late summer. I've looked past orange trees flowering, Alhambra looming, exhaled hookah smoke drifting by.
All of it alone. All of it practice, I'd thought, for now. Though, if I'm being generous or optimistic or simply open, this time could be a different kind of practice. An experiment in self-sufficiency, instead of waiting for something to happen, for someone or some circumstance to tell me what to do. I could, maybe, fill all this absence with something that matters.
I'm surrounded by devotion, passing small altars everywhere. From carved-out sanctuaries housing statues to prayers spray-painted on bus stop shelters. So many Virgins behind plexiglass, in alcoves between clothing stores and specialty food markets. Her ever-plaintive looks upward, immortalized in tile on the sides of buildings. Coins scattered at her feet, arrangements left hastily in water bottles. The flowers are either dead or fake, dyed unnatural colors like the magenta or cerulean from a box of crayons. I walk in decadent loops, turning whenever the mood strikes, when a street seems more inviting, stopping when I get too hot or tired or just feel like it. Over and over, when given a choice, I take the quieter path. Holding someone's hand would feel oppressive.
I fought jet lag with churches all afternoon, going into every one I saw. No matter how grand or abandoned looking, open or closed. The hot and cold, light then dark, helped keep me awake. The last one I found, twenty slow steps from the rental apartment, sucked all the warmth from my body. The heat, making me feel dumb and desperate moments earlier, was just a memory, suddenly absurd.
There are more than nine hundred churches in Rome.
All the frescoes and murals and windows are puzzles to parse. It's usually clear who's most important: Jesus, Mary, various apostles. Painted in the midst of their most meaningful, devout moments, set in glass in poses to inspire awe and piety. The women in these scenes are usually off to the side, bearing witness to whatever miracle is happening at the center. The young female martyrs stand out among them, painted to glow from within. That much holier, within an already chosen group.
Even their names have the air of permanence, demanding respect. Agnes, Cecilia, Perpetua, Catherine. They were sold into slavery, whipped with heavy metal chains, burned with boiling animal fat, dragged naked through the streets of the city. They starved themselves. Their throats were slit. Through it all, they placidly believed.
I lit a candle for someone with each stop, starting with the obvious: my parents, their parents, my brother Jack, close friends, then lapsed friends, and, when I exhausted them, people I've lost track of completely. These meditations grew increasingly random, wishing happiness or even just peace for people from across my life, who might not be able to pick me out of a crowd. Sometimes I couldn't even remember their names, just a detail about a face or something they said or whether they made me feel nervous or hopeful or safe.
- "Francesca Giacco is a stunning writer and Six Days in Rome is a brilliant transporting experience—a novel about belonging with heart and heat; a gorgeous and literary holiday."—Lisa Taddeo, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Three Women and Animal
- “Sometimes it takes a three-thousand-year-old city to feel brand new. Six Days in Rome unfolds with all the crisp wonderment of a two-star hotel map. Sensorial as hell, it acknowledges the major landmarks and thoroughfares, but knows you have to get lost in the invisible, the unrendered to find what you didn’t know you were looking for. An ode to funky wine labels, good taste, and true inspiration, Francesca Giacco has penned a stunningly cool and stylish debut.”—Paul Beatty, Man Booker Prize winning author of The Sellout
- "If Sally Rooney and Frances Mayes co-wrote a novel in an Airbnb near the Spanish Steps, it might read something like Six Days in Rome. Smart, keenly observed, and deeply felt, this is a book for anyone who's ever journeyed abroad to find themselves."—David Ebershoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife
- "Giacco's debut is an intimate, entertaining, clear-eyed evocation of a disillusioned young female artist's coming of age amongst the ruins of Rome and like her heart-broken narrator, very good company."—Elissa Schappell, Author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls
- "Six Days in Rome is a masterful debut—a literary travelogue that maps both the internal and external, capturing the intimate fireworks of heartbreak and the endless question of identity, alongside the sumptuous backdrop of Rome. Francesca Giacco has written a novel as artful as it is affecting."—Adrienne Brodeur, Author of Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me
- "Giacco’s rendering of collecting pieces of a shattered heart is relatable and encouraging . . . But an even greater draw is the feeling that just under a week in Italy really is included in the cover price, through descriptions of pistachio gelato drowned in olive oil, jasmine snaking up a crumbled Roman column, and exchanging the deep love of a partner for the rough kiss of an espresso-drinking stranger."—Glamour
“In this sensual novel of rage, heartbreak, and desire, a young artist named Emilia travels to Rome to reckon with the end of a relationship. When an encounter with an American expat sparks a new connection, Emilia begins to see herself in a new light—both as a woman and as an artist.”—Harper's Bazaar
- "Elegant . . . Upscale escapism."—Kirkus
- "Sensual and deliberately paced . . . Giacco revels in her setting, providing rich descriptions of the streets, food, and people Emilia encounters . . . Sumptuously written."—Publishers Weekly
- "Writing—and travel writing in particular—should transport a reader. Surprisingly few authors can successfully do it. Francesca Giacco pulls it off in her debut novel . . . Passion, exploration, and reflection [pair] with evocative descriptions of pasta, glorious wines, magnificent museums, and architectural wonders."—Air Mail
- "Part Eat Pray Love, part Heartburn, part family saga, Giacco’s debut novel takes readers on a luscious journey rich in description and emotional resonance . . . Readers will want to linger in this world created by a promising new writer."—Booklist
- "Makes just as much sense of the ancient city at the heart of the book as it does love and heartbreak . . . may inspire you to take a solo journey, even if it's only one of self-discovery."—The List
- "Francesca Giacco’s exceptional use of language in Six Days in Rome creates an immensely nuanced protagonist in Emilia . . . Sensational sensory descriptions capture what it feels like to experience Rome’s famous and off-the-beaten-path sights in the sultry July heat, as well as the city’s sounds, touch, smells, and particularly its tastes . . . Giacco’s prose keeps us turning the page . . . for the intimacy she creates between us and Emilia so that we become enraptured in her nuanced journey and, ultimately, deeply care about where she’s been … and where she might be going."—Martha’s Vineyard Times
- "[A] contemplative, quite moving account of a heartbroken young artist’s overseas trip."—The Film Stage
- On Sale
- May 2, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing