"This is not a true story," Delia Ephron insists in the acknowledgments section of her novel "Siracusa." "All characters and circumstances are fictional."
Why this cautionary note? Perhaps Ephron – whose late sister Nora Ephron famously skewered her ex-husband, the journalist Carl Bernstein, in her 1983 novel "Heartburn" – is especially attuned to the pitfalls of the roman à clef. Certainly, her characters, with their penchants for deception and self-deception, skew unsympathetic. And one of them, a writer, is perpetually calculating how he can transform his life's events into fiction – obviously, for Ephron, who is also the daughter of screenwriters, a fraught enterprise.
The skillfully wrought plot of "Siracusa" turns on two couples on the cusp of middle age whose marriages and fragile friendship are strained to the limits by a joint vacation to Rome and the Sicilian town of Siracusa. Ephron masterfully builds suspense while foreshadowing – perhaps too amply – the disasters to come.
Michael Shapner, the star of the four principals, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, memoirist and would-be novelist whose celebrity rests on a foundation of lies. As a storyteller, "he plays with facts," his wife, Lizzie, tells us. "As for lying, in this story, which is also my life, I will make a case for the charm of it," Michael says.
Lizzie, by contrast, is an "unpleasantly blunt" freelance journalist with her own writerly insecurities and career woes. She worries too about Michael's self-absorption and waning interest in her, and her vulnerabilities make her the novel's most likable character – not a high bar.
The other husband is the flirtatious Finn Dolan, a water-taxi driver turned restaurant owner in Portland, Maine. He is a Republican, a wine connoisseur and a clandestine smoker. His wife, cultured and prissy, is Taylor, with an Upper East Side pedigree and an obsession for planning, meticulous packing and five-star accommodations. She holds her husband in contempt, dislikes Lizzie, finds Michael attractive and is emotionally enmeshed with a bizarrely shy daughter named Snow. The 10-year-old, on the verge of a strange erotic awakening, sleeps in the marital bed with her mother and whispers nasty observations to the adults who dote on her.
Finn and Lizzie have a connection, a summer fling they enjoyed before their marriages. They remain friendly, even though, as Lizzie puts it, "the time between when we fell for each other and drove each other crazy was no time at all."
We begin "Siracusa" wondering: Will the seductions of Italy cause their romance to flare? Will Taylor, who shuns sex with Finn, and Michael, who has his own lover, even care? Then the plot twists. Kath, Michael's girlfriend, shows up when she is least wanted, evolving into a stalker and spurring murderous impulses.
The story, with its balance of improbabilities and inevitabilities, unspools in short, first-person bursts – all of it seemingly retrospective, composed after the trip has ended. The narration rotates among the husbands and wives, who relate the same incidents from different perspectives, sometimes with altered details. Occasionally, a narrator will flash back to the more distant past -- or forward to the psychological aftermath of the Italy trip, perhaps ruing the clues missed and the words unspoken.
In its preoccupation with unreliable narration and marital betrayal, "Siracusa" evokes not only Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film "Rashomon," but also Ford Madox Ford's 1915 modernist masterpiece "The Good Soldier" and Showtime's ongoing dramatic series "The Affair." There's even an echo of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel, "Atonement" about passion, guilt and how writers distort lives for literary ends.
Ephron, who was widowed last year, is interested in the fluid, complex terrain of long-term marriage. "Husbands and wives collaborate," Lizzie says, "hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride." Later, she will suggest to Finn that "some people … dump all their misery into marriage." Should one marry someone "who knows you," she asks, "even intuits your secrets, or from whom you can remain hidden?" And why marry at all? "Marriage," she says, "can't protect you from heartbreak or the random cruelties and unfairnesses life deals out … ."
As much as it is a marital dirge, "Siracusa" is also a meditation on writing – specifically, on the difficulties of embodying life in fiction. Finn, like Michael, warns that he will be an unreliable narrator: "I can tell my story as well as the rest of them. Although I'll mess with you now and then, I warn you."
Michael, in italic passages, rewrites his life, promising during a romantic excursion with his wife to a Roman cemetery to "steal every moment of this adventure for my novel, every feeling … ." But he notes too the gap between life and fiction, the fact that "in life one rarely knows which remarks of the hundreds uttered in the course of a day will turn out to be auspicious," while "[i]n fiction, foreshadowing is planted and flagged … ."
Ephron excels at re-creating the atmosphere of Siracusa, with its serpentine streets, rocky outcroppings and "tattered buildings … with bow-shaped delicate wrought-iron balconies." Her writing captures the tastes and aromas of the markets and the restaurants, where her characters savor wine, oranges, gelato, figs and spaghetti "tousled with tiny clams, baby tomatoes, parsley, and showered with toasted bread crumbs."
In the end, "Siracusa," like life, is a tad disappointing, its culminating disaster coming as something of an anticlimax. In its wake, we get neither love triumphant, nor justice, nor even a tragic catharsis – just a marital dissolution and some petty literary vengeance.
Through Lizzie Ephron reminds us that we want to believe "that good comes of bad and all the absurdities play out in your favor." "Siracusa" suggests maybe not; or maybe, as with our vision of shifting colors illuminating a house at sunset, it's all a matter of time and perspective.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for the Forward. Follow her @JuliaMKlein.