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Book Review

A Midlife Crisis Spurs Quest for 'Luck' Under the Tuscan Sun

RENATO'S LUCK A Novel, by Jeff Shapiro, HarperCollins, $24, 304 pages


With its rolling hills, grapevines and ancient farmhouses, Tuscany provides a taste of Old World rural life that has all too quickly vanished elsewhere. Even so, the region's increased popularity has led to land and housing developments that have already begun diminishing Tuscany's charms. Jeff Shapiro's debut novel, "Renato's Luck," focuses on the picturesque Tuscan village of Sant'Angelo D'Asso, which, in the novel, has recently become endangered by government plans to build a dam, a construction that would soon leave most of the 7th century village under water.

Renato Tizzoni, employed by the town's waterworks company, has lost his taste for life--and the fate of Sant'Angelo is only part of the problem. His 17-year-old daughter is in love with a boy he disapproves of. His old friend, Signor Vezzosi, a father-figure to Renato, has recently died. Renato finds himself unable even to enjoy lovemaking with his wife. But most disconcerting to Renato is that he has lost the delight he once took in all of life's simple pleasures, and that realization, that "empty chill chased away his closeness to God, made his wife's perfume disappear from beneath his nose, left him lonely and sad."

Renato's problem may be viewed as symptomatic of a classic midlife crisis. He is about to turn 40; his daughter is growing up; his romance with his wife has cooled; and his future generally seems devoid of exciting promise. And yet, what makes Shapiro's novel transcend this often trendy topic is the depth of scrutiny with which Renato is endowed. Though depicted as a "simple" man, Renato has a remarkable intuition and a special capacity to connect with others. Despite his lack of formal education, Renato is a thinker.

When a fantastic dream visits him one night, Renato tirelessly hammers away at its meaning. In the dream, a "clear and strangely luminous hand" wearing a ring with an enormous red stone leads him to a well outside his house where he discovers a wooden box filled with gemstones and gold. Renato feels certain that his dream is prophetic, predicting a marvelous change in his fortune as long as he can figure out just what he must do to find it. Mulling over the permutations in each part of his dream, Renato comes up with an interpretation that seems to encompass both the symbols in the dream itself and the unhappy shifts in his waking life. Yet, despite Renato's thoughtfulness, his final conclusion about what action he must take seems a bit wacky.

Renato decides that the dream is asking him to go to Rome to shake the Pope's hand while keeping one hand on his own "culo." He reasons to himself that when something good happens people say, " 'Che colpo di culo!'--what a stroke of ass, meaning what a stroke of luck." So, by a process of inverse logic, Renato decides that if he wants his luck to change he must--at least figuratively--change his "culo." But Shapiro's efforts toward comedy here seem strained, because until this point Renato has been portrayed as both astutely thoughtful and utterly respectful; his planned visit to the Vatican may seem to some readers just a bit too far out of character.

Shapiro does best when showing Renato trying to navigate his daily life and intimate relationships. When Renato becomes tempted to have an affair with a British actress who has bought a farmhouse in the village, he becomes overwhelmed with guilt and sadness that he should possess any impulse at all to betray his wife. Yet there is nothing prudish about Shapiro's description of Renato's brief intoxication with the actress, Meg Barker; he portrays a private scene between the two of them with bold and humorous eroticism. One day Renato visits Meg's home to fix her sink, and during the process, the actress steps on a tack which Renato then must extract. But this close contact with beautiful and sexy Meg, as he removes the tack and then bathes her injured foot, leaves Renato hilariously undone. Despite its few flaws, "Renato's Luck" gathers homespun wisdom, offering some earthy insights into life's unsettling gyrations.

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