The Brilliant Explorations of Elizabeth Spencer

Elizabeth Spencer, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, late 1990s

Even before its adaptation into a Tony-winning musical, The Light in the Piazza bore the same relation to the rest of Elizabeth Spencer’s work as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” does to that of Robert Frost: a title known by those who know nothing else about her. Spencer’s 1960 novella about an American woman’s attempt to marry her daughter to a handsome young Italian is a deft comedy about the relations of America and Europe in which each has something to sell and the New World is in no way the dupe of the Old.

Its heroine, Margaret Johnson, is a woman with a burden: at the age of ten her beautiful daughter Clara was kicked in the head by a pony, and at that point her mental development stopped. Now in her twenties, Clara looks like a grown woman but has a child’s delight in any display of kindness; she seems not to know about sex but back home in Winston-Salem “had run out one day and flung her arms around the grocery boy.” Mrs. Johnson has learned how “to explain her daughter to young men,” and expects she’ll have to do the same with Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Florentine, however uncertain his English. But the boy won’t go away, and though she tries to tell the truth to his formidable father, the elder Naccarelli chooses not to hear. The young people are clearly enchanted with each other, and Mrs. Johnson begins to dream that in Italy love itself might somehow grant her daughter a normal life.

Of course it will take discretion; and it will also take money. The Mississippi-born Spencer has said that the roots of the tale lie in Boccaccio rather than in Henry James, but I’m not sure that the Italian would have allowed himself to entertain the note of maternal hope with which the story ends. With the wedding over, Mrs. Johnson will say that “I did the right thing…I know I did.” And the reader believes her—we suspend our doubts, and believe for a moment that all will be well. For who’s to say she’s wrong? Fairy tales have their own truth, and to me the most remarkable thing about this almost perfect work is the way Spencer captures America’s midcentury moment of confidence: the confidence of people who thought, however briefly, that they could do anything.

The story was filmed in 1962, with Olivia de Havilland, and its sales number in the seven figures. Spencer has nevertheless called it an “albatross,” and spoken wistfully of the way its charm seems over the years to have occluded the rest of her oeuvre. So the title of her new book carries a note of defiance. It’s not the name of any of the nine stories here, and yet how can a writer who…

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