Wandering through Lifeby Donna Leon
The internationally bestselling author of the Guido Brunetti mysteries tells her own adventurous life story as she enters her eighties
In a series of vignettes full of affection, irony, and good humor, Donna Leon narrates a remarkable life she feels has rather more happened to her than been planned.
Following a childhood in the company of her New Jersey family, with frequent visits to her grandfather’s farm and its beloved animals, and summers spent selling homegrown tomatoes by the roadside, Leon got her first taste of the classical music and opera that would enrich her life. She also developed a yen for adventure. In 1976, she made the spontaneous decision to teach English in Iran, before finding herself swept up in the early days of the 1979 Revolution. After teaching stints in China and Saudi Arabia, she finally landed in Venice. Leon vividly animates her decades-long love affair with Italy, from her first magical dinner when serving as a chaperone to a friend, to the hunt for the perfect cappuccino, to the warfare tactics of grandmothers doing their grocery shopping at the Rialto Market.
Some things remain constant throughout the decades: her adoration of opera, especially Handel’s vocal music, and her advocacy for the environment, embodied in her passion for bees—which informs the surprising crux of the Brunetti mystery Earthly Remains. Even as mass tourism takes its toll on the patience of residents, Leon’s passion for Venice remains unchanged: its outrageous beauty and magic still captivate her.
Having recently celebrated her eightieth birthday, Leon poignantly confronts the dual challenges and pleasures of aging. Complete with a brief letter dissuading those hoping to meet Guido Brunetti at the Questura, and always suffused with music, food, and her sharp sense of humor, Wandering through Life offers Donna Leon at her most personal.
Named a Most Anticipated Book by The Millions
“In this book, Ms. Leon puts Brunetti firmly in the background and brings herself to the fore . . . Her book is full of spontaneous decisions and aimless meandering . . . Warm, witty, and engaging.”—Malcolm Forbes, Wall Street Journal
“The bestselling detective novelist sold tomatoes in New Jersey and taught English in Iran, before finding happiness (and murder) in Venice . . . So how has La Maestra achieved so much? A delightful companion in life and on the page, she says her high-flying literary career is due to a ‘general chipper stance towards the world’ and, despite her Catholic parents, a Protestant work ethic. Let’s call them the wings of Leon.”—Mark Sanderson, The Times (UK)
“Wandering through Life is subtitled ‘A Memoir,’ but this does not do justice to such a remarkable book. It is not, by any means, a conventional memoir. It is a series of short, sometimes directionless excursions into facets of Leon’s life and view of the world, some autobiographical, some philosophical and some purely whimsical . . . Leon has created a beautifully crafted looking glass into her world.”—Justin Washaw, Times Literary Supplement
“[Leon’s] memoir invites readers into her world of adventures, and she’s certainly had plenty . . . She vividly and engaging describes her love of crime, Venice, and opera, her dream of finding the perfect cappuccino (more difficult than one might imagine), and the games she created with friends throughout the world. Leon’s wit and life well-lived will draw in varied audiences, who can live vicariously through her. Fans of her series will certainly enjoy this memoir and the brief letter she includes to dissuade them from trying to find Guido Brunetti at the Questura.”—Library Journal
“Charming . . . Delightfully approachable.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Although celebrated crime writer Leon describes herself as ‘feckless and unthinking by nature,’ she is anything but in the pages of her sprightly memoir, where she focuses the same keen eye for detail and backstory that infuses her beloved, long-running Venetian mystery series featuring Guido Brunetti . . . Leon is coy and discerning in the anecdotes she selects to chronicle her 80 years on Earth, whether lamenting Venice’s environmental degradation or reveling in the works of Handel. Though fans will bask in these candid glimpses, one need not be a devoted Brunetti aficionado to appreciate Leon’s delightfully spirited account of a life well lived.”—Booklist
“Fans of her work finally will get a glimpse behind her persona to see what makes her tick and the journey that drew her to crime fiction. Now in her 80s, Leon felt the need to look backwards, and it is a pleasant trip down memory lane . . . An eye-opening read that truly fills in the blanks of Leon’s life while maintaining enough of a distance so that readers still will have plenty to learn about her. Most of all, it makes me eagerly await her next Brunetti novel, which cannot come fast enough.”—BookReporter
“A remarkable life story by a remarkable woman, Wandering through Life is an impressively written memoir laced with keen observation and humor. An inherently fascinating and memorable read from start to finish.”—Midwest Book Review
“This endlessly enjoyable series, with its deep thoughts about justice and vengeance and charming classical allusions, can’t help making you smile.”—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
“[Leon] has never become perfunctory, never failed to give us vivid portraits of people and of Venice, never lost her fine, disillusioned indignation.”—Ursula K. Le Guin, New York Times
“You become so wrapped up in these compelling characters . . . Each one is better than the last.”—Louise Erdrich, PBS NewsHour
“Few detective writers create so vivid, inclusive, and convincing a narrative as Donna Leon . . . One of the most exquisite and subtle detective series ever.”—Washington Post
“The sophisticated but still moral Brunetti, with his love of food and his loving family, proves a worthy custodian of timeless values and verities.”—Wall Street Journal
“[Leon] uses the relatively small and crime-free canvas of Venice for rips about Italian life, sexual styles and—best of all—the kind of ingrown business and political corruption that seems to lurk just below the surface.”—Chicago Tribune
“Hers is an unusually potent cocktail of atmosphere and event.”—New Yorker
“For those who know Venice, or want to, Brunetti is a well-versed escort to the nooks, crannies, moods, and idiosyncrasies of what residents call La Serenissima, the Serene One . . . Richly atmospheric, [Leon] introduces you to the Venice insiders know.”—USA Today
“Donna Leon is the undisputed crime fiction queen . . . Leon’s ability to capture the social scene and internal politics [of Venice] is first-rate.”—Baltimore Sun
“Terrific at providing, through its weary but engaging protagonist, a strong sense of the moral quandaries inherent in Italian society and culture.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Brunetti is one of the most attractive policemen in crime fiction today.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
“As always, Brunetti is highly attuned to (and sympathetic toward) the failings of the humans around him.”—Seattle Times
“Leon’s writing trembles with true feeling.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Leon started out with offhand, elegant excellence, and has simply kept it up.”—Guardian
“Compassionate yet incorruptible, Brunetti knows that true justice doesn’t always end in an arrest or a trial.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Brunetti] is a superb police detective—calm, deliberate, and insightful as he investigates with a reflective thoroughness.”—Library Journal
“The appeal of Guido Brunetti, the hero of Donna Leon’s long-running Venetian crime series, comes not from his shrewdness, though he is plenty shrewd, nor from his quick wit. It comes, instead, from his role as an Everyman . . . [his life is] not so different from our own days at the office or nights around the dinner table. Crime fiction for those willing to grapple with, rather than escape, the uncertainties of daily life.”—Booklist
“It’s difficult to describe the work of Donna Leon other than in superlatives . . . An annual blessing, a fine series—one of the finest (see what I mean) in the mystery (or any) genre . . . There are few reading joys that equal cracking the binding of a new Leon novel . . . If you have not experienced this world, so exotic and yet so familiar, you can pick up literally any volume in the series and begin a comfortable entry into Brunetti’s Venice.”—BookReporter
“One of the most popular crime series worldwide . . . While the Brunetti books, with their abundance of local color and gastronomic treats, appeal to the fans of the traditional mystery, Leon has something darker and deeper in mind.”—Life Sentence
“No author has delved into Venetian society quite like Leon, whose insider’s view shows how crime seeps throughout the city, touching all strata of society.”—Mystery Scene
Excerpted from Wandering through Life © 2023 by Donna Leon. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Like most of the events in my life, the thought of assembling this book came to me accidentally. Some years ago, at a dinner in Venice, I sat next to a person with whom I’d worked in Iran, and as we chatted about friends we had met while there, friends with whom we were still in contact, and then started to reminisce about some of the things we’d done, I had the chance to see them afresh. Because they’d been part of my daily life, I’d never thought that the events were particularly interesting. But then he made a casual reference to ‘Armenian Circus’ and, without a thought, we both crouched down on the floor and began to hop – with our much older knees – around the room like rabbits, much to the consternation of the other guests.
For the other people at dinner, it was obvious that we’d lost our minds. For us, however, this was the main act of ‘Armenian Circus’, a game we’d played with friends during the military curfew imposed on the city of Isfahan, Iran, during the last few months I spent working there in the late seventies. Of course, we’d had costumes then, but they had not survived the evacuation that took us from a violent Iran. Pity, really, for they’d been made of great lengths of silk and an inordinate number of feathers, and had made a great contribution to the fun of the game.
The accompaniment had not been music but the sound of machine-gun fire from the city and the occasional exploding bomb. The circus was a product of the frequent pyjama parties that had resulted from the cur- few imposed by both sides engaged in the Islamic Revolution. Anyone seen on the street after 7 p.m. could be shot. Many of us were in the habit of stopping to see friends after work for a drink or a cup of tea, so we were often stranded there by the wail of sirens that told us we were going to have to sleep where we were and go home after 6 a.m., when the curfew was lifted. Like children shipwrecked on a magic island, we had to invent ways to amuse ourselves – thus ‘Armenian Circus’, though I no longer remember where the name came from nor what the other parts of the game were.
As we tried to explain this to the people at the table, to whom machine-gun fire was not the usual background noise at dinner, I realized that perhaps I had seen and done unusual things.
I’d undertaken these things, I suspect, because I am feckless and unthinking by nature and have never planned more than the first step in anything I’ve done. Take the first step – sign the contract, agree to the interview, accept the job, rent the apartment – and then wait to see what could happen. Something has to happen, doesn’t it? You might not know where you’re going, but you have to end up somewhere, don’t you?
2022 was my eightieth year, news that surprises even me, for at eighty, people are meant to be settled or in the process of settling. Unfortunately, the idea of settling in one place and doing one thing or – worse – not doing anything at all, has no appeal. The orchestra with which I work, Il Pomo d’Oro, has plans to record Handel’s Jephtha, Giulio Cesare, Berenice and Semele, and that should keep me busy (and in vocal paradise) for some time. The casts and recording dates are as set as any dates can be in today’s music world and so, like Handel’s Semele, I am looking forward to ‘endless pleasure’. I shall also have the opportunity to spend more time with Guido Brunetti, his family, and his friends and colleagues, and to give him the chance to reveal more about himself, his past, and what he thinks and feels.