About the Book by Donna Leon Titled “Wandering Through Life: A Memoir”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Malcolm Forbes headlined “”Wandering Through Life’ Review: Donna Leon’s Journey”:

“Every profession leads to deformation,” writes Donna Leon in her memoir “Wandering Through Life.” She adds: “mine is crime.” The novelist then proceeds to come clean about the way her fertile imagination runs wild, turning innocent scenarios into fantasies of wrongdoing.

She buys prosecco in a shop, but in her mind’s eye she sees herself absconding with a couple of bottles of more expensive wine stuffed up her sleeves or into her boots. She envisions herself picking pockets, stealing stationery and slipping out of boutiques wearing layers of unpaid-for cashmere sweaters. And when she travels back and forth between Venice and Zurich by train, she constructs dramas in which the villainous protagonists are the unwitting passengers around her.

Both that imagination and that preoccupation with crime have proved beneficial to Ms. Leon over the course of a writing career that has spanned more than three decades and produced a train of bestsellers. From her 1992 debut, “Death at La Fenice,” in which a world-famous conductor is poisoned during a performance of “La Traviata,” to this year’s “So Shall You Reap,” about the killing of a Sri Lankan immigrant, Ms. Leon’s 32 novels have followed the cultured, sharp-witted and upright Commissario Guido Brunetti as he investigates corruption, kidnapping, robbery and murder most foul in his hometown of Venice.

Expertly plotted police procedurals, Ms. Leon’s Brunetti books are all the more special for redirecting readers from the postcard-ready canal scenes and into the grittier, less picturesque byways of La Serenissima, and for grappling with pertinent social, political, historical and, in recent years, ecological issues that affect Italy in general and Venice in particular.

In this book, Ms. Leon puts Brunetti firmly in the background and brings herself to the fore. “Wandering Through Life” is aptly named: In her preface, Ms. Leon declares, “I am feckless and unthinking by nature and have never planned more than the first step in anything I have done.” Her book is full of spontaneous decisions and aimless meandering.

Even the idea of writing it came to her by chance, after a casual comment at a dinner party reminded her of a game she played with friends while working as a teacher in Iran in the late ’70s, to the accompaniment of machine-gun fire and exploding bombs. Convinced that her life hasn’t been so humdrum after all, Ms. Leon set out to chronicle it—although not in a fluid, narrative but rather in a series of scattered, at times haphazard, recollections.

Born in 1942, Ms. Leon was raised in northern New Jersey. When she was 7, her family moved for a year to a house on her grandfather’s farm, a place she describes as “Paradise,” despite the horrors of seasonal slaughter. Brief sketches of family members (a brother with a knack for landing on his feet, an aunt who “bore a frightening resemblance to a horse”) give way to a more fleshed-out profile of Ms. Leon’s mother, a woman who brimmed with restless energy and loved to drink, smoke, laugh and make others laugh. She instilled in her daughter a love of reading and an attitude not unlike her own. “I went through life never having a real job, never having a pension plan, never settling down in one place or at one job, but having an enormous amount of fun.”

This is borne out in Ms. Leon’s accounts of teaching abroad. In Iran, her language lessons with trainee helicopter pilots gradually dried up during the Islamic Revolution, leaving her with free time to enjoy endless games of tennis and “curfew pyjama parties.” For one academic year she found herself “imprisoned” in Saudi Arabia, so she and two other colleagues relieved the monotony of nonworking hours by creating $audiopoly, a “Bored Game.”

But the foreign country that changed Ms. Leon’s life, and the one that most readers will be interested to hear her experience of and her opinions on, is Italy. She got her first taste of the place in the late ’60s, when a former university classmate asked her to accompany her on a trip. She fell in love with the people and la dolce vitaduring her stay and finally settled in Venice in the early ’80s.

She has lived and worked there for more than 25 years and weighs in with authority on a number of topics: how to find the perfect cappuccino; the ubiquitous gondola, “as common as yellow taxis to a New Yorker”; the trials of securing a plumber, mailing a letter or battling grandmothers who do their grocery shopping at the Rialto Market (she muses that they must learn tactics from the careful study of Clausewitz). She is greatly troubled by mass tourism and oversize cruise ships, the two evils that are damaging Venice and that prompted her to say ciao bella and pack up and move to Switzerland in 2015.

“Wandering Through Life” contains some standout chapters, including one on how bees and beekeeping played an integral role in the plot of the Brunetti novel “Earthly Remains” (2017), and another in which Ms. Leon, now 80, ruminates on “the other end of life.” But although Ms. Leon’s slim memoir proves warm, witty and engaging, some readers and most fans will be left wanting more. She offers an overview of her life rather than an in-depth trawl through it.

Many chapters are mere vignettes, and key topics are overlooked: Ms. Leon shares a story about her enterprising scheme selling tomatoes during her school vacations but says nothing about her college years; she gushes about her “greatest joy” of opera and admits to being “an American Handel junkie” but discloses next to nothing about the nuts and bolts of her writing.

In her introduction, Ms. Leon makes it clear that she hasn’t yet hung up her pen: She is looking forward to spending time with Brunetti again and giving him the chance “to reveal more about himself, his past, and what he thinks and feels.” If only she had done the same here for herself.

Malcolm Forbes is a writer in Edinburgh, Scotland. His work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and elsewhere.

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