Destinations: Milan, New York City and Brittany in France
Book:P.O. Box Love: A Novel of Letters (originally 2009, but NEW in English– February 2012)by Paola Calvetti
I reviewed this delicious new romance in e-book format, and as I read P.O. Box Love, I used the bookmark function on my Sony reader to mark favorite passages (there were so many!) and to make a list of people for whom I want to buy the book (there were so many!) If you get the impression that I am recommending this gem to lovers of travel and lovers of literature, you have guessed correctly
If you have ever been tempted to look up an old girlfriend or boyfriend, you will sympathize with Frederico. If you have doubts about revealing yourself to someone from your past, you’ll understand Emma. Did you ever have the urge to open a bookstore? You’ll love Dreams & Desires, Emma’s bookstore in Milan that specializes in romance. Paola Calvetti, the Italian author, agreed to answer some questions for readers of A Traveler’s Library, and in my first question, I get at one of the reasons this book stands apart. P.O. Box Love blows apart the assumption that romance ends at 35 or so.
A Traveler’s Library: How did the protagonists’ age change your task as a romance writer?
Paola Calvetti: I’m fifty and something so I know exactly how a woman my age feels… It was simply the idea with which I began, the only one to tell the truth. The rest came virtually by itself. I never thought about writing for any particular age group. Emma and Federico are 50 years old. Alice is thirty, Mattia and Carlotta are eighteen. …and the elderly couple, Lucilla and Ernesto are sixty. I felt I had to write about a love against all odds , and love “later” in life. I also felt the urge to express my conviction that love is ageless.
Emma sorts books in sections with names like “Hopeless Loves”, “From Here to Eternity”, “Mission Impossible” and she concocts elaborate window displays with novel themes like hotel romance, opera, or one-night stands.
ATL: The store’s displays of books fascinated me. Where did that idea come from?
P. C.: The idea came to me because I liked the idea of writing about a bookstore owner, and it seemed like an ideal protagonist for my novel. Also I wanted Emma and Federico to hand write letters to each other. That is how the idea of a sort of magical bookstore came to me, where novels speak to readers, and are used as a sort of …medicine for all problems related to love…The bookshop Dreams & Desires is a place where you can be yourself and express your deepest desires; a place in my dreams where books come alive. As a reader and writer I love bookstores. And this is where I will make a confession: When I was a child I wanted to be a bookseller or librarian!!!
My French publisher actually opened a virtual online Emma’s bookshop.
ATL.I learned so much about Belle Îlereading this book. Now I’ll have to go back to Brittany and look for Sarah Bernhardt’s home on Belle Île. Why was it your choice for the location of the lovers’ meetings?
PC: The way I found Belle Île was really strange and… tied to the destiny of the book. I was in Concarneau; it was a cloudy afternoon and I was visiting its historical monuments, having a cup of tea and wandering in the alleyways. I happened to enter an ancient bookstore run by an old bookseller selling second-hand books. I asked him “do you have any books about Breton legends or rather a love legend?” “Of course”, he answered, the great story of Jean and Jeanne!”
He stared at me, surprised I didn’t know the legend of the two menhirs in the small and beautiful island Belle-Ile-en-mer. So I went there by boat and fell literally in love with the legend… I had found the archetype and the next summer I spent a month on the island doing research: Emma and Federico would met once a year on the island as Jean and Jeanne do. Then I rented a small house in Belle-Ile for a month and there I discovered Sarah Bernhardt and her incredible little fort, embedded in the Pointe des Poulins’s rock on a gentle slope. Now it is restored and is a small museum dedicated to the great actress.
[NOTE: On Wednesday, we will be talking about Sarah Bernhardt again!]
There are literary quotations in abundance throughout P.O. Box Love. Emma ironically quotes Virginia Woolf,” how very little natural gift words have for being useful.” A sign on the wall of the store says “The only advice you can give someone about reading is not to accept any advice…” But we asked advice anyhow– for books that inspire travel. Paola echoed the beliefs of A Traveler’s Library.
PC: As a reader and traveller I prefer novels to traveller’s guides! When I was younger, I got to know London through the pages of Charles Dickens [Note: In February, A Traveler’s Library visits Dickens in celebration of his 200th birthday] and Virginia Woolf (who wrote five magnificent pieces on London for Good Housekeeping!); Paris through the biography of Camille Claudel and the novels by Colette, and Marcel Proust! Every nation has its own authors but the problem in advising your readers on Italian authors is the language. It is very rare for Italian authors to be translated into English. I am an exception!
ATL: Is there something else you would like my readers to know?
PC: I would like to tell them that my novel contains my love for the United States. I wrote about New York through the eyes of Federico, an Italian, but I also believe that this book is more than a novel dedicated to love, it is a travel guide for those who love Europe, Italy in particular, its food, its smells and its culture.
Indeed the book is a love poem to the United States, particularly since Frederico is an Italian temporarily living in New York City during September 2001 and the book deals with the shock and horror of 9-11-01. Frederico (and the author) love the Morgan Library in New York and we are treated to the history of Morgan and the architectural challenges of adapting an historic building.
A love story told in letters sounds as though it would be a simple affair, but P.O. Box Love is enriched with literature, architecture, the beauty of three countries, the interplay of interesting characters, including a mother and her teenage son, and the invasion of the Internet into previously hidebound practices of publishing. All these factors contribute to a winner of a book. I welcomed Frederico and Emma into my life and was sorry to say goodbye.
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Disclaimer: Links to the book on Amazon are affiliate links, meaning that anything you buy when you use the link will help support A Traveler’s Library, and we thank you very much. The photographs here are all the property of Paola Calvetti and should not be reused without express permission.