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Siracusa by Delia Ephron

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Michael and Lizzie are a writer–journalist couple from New York City; Finn and Taylor live with their ten-year-old daughter, Snow, in Portland, Maine, where Finn (an old flame of Lizzie's) owns a restaurant. After meeting up by chance on a trip to London last year, they decide to go away together for a proper holiday in Italy, to the Sicilian island of Siracusa via Rome. In alternating chapters, the narrative moves fluidly between the perspectives of the four adults, all of whom are reflecting – with the help of hindsight and therapy – on what ended up being a disastrous trip. Although we don't learn until very late on in the book exactly what went wrong, there's a sense that it might be something to do with Snow.

All four voices are distinct and believable. That's not to say they're likeable, though; the two men, in particular, are fairly despicable. Both are entertaining the idea of adultery to some extent: Michael has a younger mistress named Kathy, a waitress, and Finn is considering starting an affair with Jessa, a lobsterwoman. Plus there's Lizzie, with whom Finn continues to flirt even though it's been nearly 15 years since they were together. The men often write in a kind of shorthand, like they're too busy to waste time on surplus words. This is especially evident in Michael's sections, as in 'Confess? Knew I shouldn't. Not under any circumstances. Ignore the inclination.'

Though the four main characters get along reasonably well on the surface, deep down they really despise each other. Taylor thinks Lizzie is shallow because she doesn't have children; Michael and Lizzie think Taylor is risibly earnest; Finn and Michael don't trust each other, and Taylor thinks Finn is a useless excuse for a father. And just wait until Lizzie gets wind of Michael's ongoing affair.

But it's Snow who's the most intriguing character here. She is like a blank that the others project their own ideas onto. Is she totally innocent, or a clever manipulator? When she splashes around in the Trevi Fountain, or fakes a faint in front of Caravaggio's painting of Saint Lucia, is she fully aware of what she's doing? Is she, as Michael thinks when Snow starts clinging to him, an unwittingly sexual Lolita-like being?

One recurring, creepy element has Snow whispering something seemingly innocuous but ultimately malicious into one of the adults' ears – a truth that stirs things up between the grown-ups. Crucially, Ephron withholds details of these whispered revelations until later on. Snow struck me as a modern version of the title character in Henry James's What Maisie Knew, a novel that pivots on the dramatic irony between what the child understands and what is actually going on.

This psychological thriller dramatizes the situation of Americans abroad in a manner reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith's (especially in The Talented Mr Ripley) and explores the secrets that haunt many a marriage. Ephron, who has written in many genres and also made a number of films with her late sister, Nora, delivers many cutting one-liners on this theme:

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