Tag Archives: Heather O’Neill

Almost Four Days in Genoa and One Book

We booked a short break back in March thinking that it might be our last chance to join the EU citizen passport queue but once again we were reprieved. Or at least that’s how I think of it. This time we were heading for Genoa, home of two of my favourite things to eat: focaccia and pesto – the real thing not that stuff out of a jar. After a fabulously warm and sunny Easter weekend at home, we tried not to be disappointed as the rain lashed the cab windscreen on our way to our apartment but failed. Being British we were prepared and strode out into the narrow medieval streets of the old town with their many-storied buildings shaking our heads politely at the umbrella sellers. Our first impression of Genoa was of nicely faded grandeur which reminded me a little of Lisbon.

The next day, minds on our stomachs as ever, we headed off to the Mercato Orientale by way of the stupendously grand Via 20 Settembre – a shopping street with gorgeously decorated colonnades, resplendent with mosaic pavements and painted ceilings. Genoa is known as ‘La Superba’, a reference to its glorious past evident from the street’s extravagant decoration. The market was a treat, too, full of stalls displaying beautiful produce including purple asparagus, courgette flowers and shiny aubergines, some of which we snapped up for supper.

If Via 20 Settembre hadn’t rubbed in Genoa’s past glories there was no escaping them on Via Garibaldi which is filled with impressive palazzos. The city owes its Unesco World Heritage status largely to these extravagant but often beautiful buildings which hosted the state visits of the great and possibly not so good in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We returned to the Via Garibaldi for an aperitivo before supper, alerted by the excellent Travel Gourmet, whose blog I consulted frequently (almost obsessively) while in Genoa, to the delicious snacks served alongside drinks rather like tapas. We each had a glass of bone-dry prosecco at the Baribaldi, chosen by H who can’t resist a pun, and felt so much better at the prospect of yet more rain afterwards.

Thursday was Liberation Day in Italy, and for us, too, with some sunshine and swifts flying past as H opened our apartments’ shutters. We took ourselves off for a stroll along the Corso Italia, looking out to sea with the many locals walking their splendid dogs, several of which looked as if they belonged in the mountains. The afternoon was taken up with visiting a few of those flamboyant palazzos on the Via Garibaldi which turned out to be even more overwrought inside than their exteriors suggested. I couldn’t help feeling Genoa’s nobility were trying to outdo each other rather like the owners of the outrageously decorated art nouveau villas we’d marvelled at in Riga, Budapest and Antwerp.

Another day, another palazzo, this one – the Palazzo di Andrea Doria – commissioned by the eponymous admiral instrumental in regaining Genoa from the French in the sixteenth century. His palace is quite stunning, opulent yet not nearly as florid as those lining the Via Garibaldi. Not exactly understated either, of course, but I found it much more appealing and its gardens are gorgeous, filled with roses and lavender already in bloom. We loved it although H described it as a bit ‘Trumpian’ given Doria’s penchant for having himself and his cronies portrayed as conquering Roman heroes.

We spent our last afternoon ambling around the city, taking the funicular up one of its steep hills and admiring the view then wandering back to our apartment through streets lined with tiny shops. Rather like our experience in Lille, we’d heard few foreign tourists throughout our stay which seemed a shame. That said, Genoa Cover imageclearly has a life of its own rather than relying on pandering to the likes of me for its income which is surely a good thing.

And the book? Set in 1930s Montreal, Heather O’Neill’s The Lonely Hearts Hotel tells the story of two orphans besotted with each other but separated when Pierrot is adopted by a rich man, escaping the brutality of the orphanage but left yearning for his soulmate. O’Neill’s imaginative, sometimes heartrending novel is a tale of gangsters, vaudeville, ambition, beauty and above all, love. It went down very well.

The Girl who was Saturday Night: Celebrity fallout, Québécois style

The Girl who was Saturday NightI’m not sure how I managed to miss Heather O’Neill’s first novel – probably a case of so many books so little time – but The Girl who was Saturday Night snagged my attention when flipping through publishers’ catalogues choosing books for my Books to Look Out For in May post, or rather posts as there were far too many goodies to cram into just one. Set in 1994 against the backdrop of the Québécois separation referendum, it’s about nineteen-year-old Nouschka and Nicolas Tremblay, the twins of washed-up folk singer/national treasure, Étienne, raised by their grandfather in a dodgy area of Montreal and dragged into the limelight as cute seven-year-olds when their father’s star was at its height. Étienne is a man of colossal ego with a penchant for fourteen-year-old girls one of whom conceived the twins on a one night stand, leaving them with their paternal grandparents when they were born. Both suffer from chronic motherlessness – Nouschka happy to go home with anyone for the night, Nicolas engaged in a career of attention-seeking behaviour and crime so petty that he holds up a librarian for the fines she’s collected that day. Life is chaotic: they both love and hate each other, scrapping viciously then turning to each other for comfort. When Nouschka falls in love with failed figure skater Raphaël, even more disturbed than her brother, she thinks she’s finally brought about her own separation but things are not so simple. Throughout it all a film crew documenting the life of Étienne, still a Québécois legend, pops up catapulting Nouschka, Nicolas and Raphaël into the tabloids.

Narrated by Nouschka who ‘always ended up in the middle of some festive waste of time’, the novel is peppered with sharply witty phrases: her grandfather’s ‘memory was a shelf in a junk shop with things that should have been thrown out’; ‘When love takes off its clothes and has a drink. It sometimes takes the most appalling forms’. Her voice is world weary, a layer of shellac covering shaky fragility which slowly softens as the novel progresses and Nouschka finds her way to some sort normality. There are touches of whimsy – a bird ‘bursts off the pattern’ of a shaken carpet and flies away, one of the many, many cats slips ‘into a mirror’ and disappears – but this is far from a whimsical novel. It’s about fame and its fallout, parenting and irresponsibility, love and dependency. Hard to sum it up in a few words – what begins as a rambunctious, party girl’s story ends in quiet hope with a riotous ride in between.