Summary and book reviews of The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

The City of Falling Angels

By John Berendt

The City of Falling Angels
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2005,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2006,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

It was seven years ago that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil achieved a record-breaking four-year run on the New York Times bestseller list. John Berendt's inimitable brand of nonfiction brought the dark mystique of Savannah so startlingly to life for millions of people that tourism to Savannah increased by 46 percent. It is Berendt and only Berendt who can capture Venice—a city of masks, a city of riddles, where the narrow, meandering passageways form a giant maze, confounding all who have not grown up wandering into its depths.

Venice, a city steeped in a thousand years of history, art and architecture, teeters in precarious balance between endurance and decay. Its architectural treasures crumble—foundations shift, marble ornaments fall—even as efforts to preserve them are underway. The City of Falling Angels opens on the evening of January 29, 1996, when a dramatic fire destroys the historic Fenice opera house. The loss of the Fenice, where five of Verdi's operas premiered, is a catastrophe for Venetians. Arriving in Venice three days after the fire, Berendt becomes a kind of detective—inquiring into the nature of life in this remarkable museum-city—while gradually revealing the truth about the fire.

In the course of his investigations, Berendt introduces us to a rich cast of characters: a prominent Venetian poet whose shocking "suicide" prompts his skeptical friends to pursue a murder suspect on their own; the first family of American expatriates that loses possession of the family palace after four generations of ownership; an organization of high-society, partygoing Americans who raise money to preserve the art and architecture of Venice, while quarreling in public among themselves, questioning one another's motives and drawing startled Venetians into the fray; a contemporary Venetian surrealist painter and outrageous provocateur; the master glassblower of Venice; and numerous others-stool pigeons, scapegoats, hustlers, sleepwalkers, believers in Martians, the Plant Man, the Rat Man, and Henry James.

Berendt tells a tale full of atmosphere and surprise as the stories build, one after the other, ultimately coming together to reveal a world as finely drawn as a still-life painting. The fire and its aftermath serve as a leitmotif that runs throughout, adding the elements of chaos, corruption, and crime and contributing to the ever-mounting suspense of this brilliant book.

1

AN EVENING IN VENICE

The air still smelled of charcoal when I arrived in Venice three days after the fire. As it happened, the timing of my visit was purely coincidental. I had made plans, months before, to come to Venice for a few weeks in the off-season in order to enjoy the city without the crush of other tourists.

"If there had been a wind Monday night," the water-taxi driver told me as we came across the lagoon from the airport, "there wouldn't be a Venice to come to."

"How did it happen?" I asked.

The taxi driver shrugged. "How do all these things happen?"

It was early February, in the middle of the peaceful lull that settles over Venice every year between New Year's Day and Carnival. The tourists had gone, and in their absence the Venice they inhabited had all but closed down. Hotel lobbies and souvenir shops stood virtually empty. Gondolas lay tethered to poles and covered in blue tarpaulin. Unbought copies of the International Herald Tribune ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Count Marcello says to Berendt, "What is true? What is not true? The answer is not so simple, because the truth can change. I can change. You can change. That is the Venice effect" (p. 2). How do you see the "Venice effect" at work in this book?
  2. Discuss the symbolism of Ludovico De Luigi's painting of the Fenice on fire, placed incorrectly (but on purpose) in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon
  3. Berendt writes, "Venetians seemed to be asking themselves the very questions that I, too, had been wondering about—namely, what it meant to live in so rarefied and unnatural a setting" (p. 42). What answers, if any, do you think the author and his subjects come to in the pages of The City of ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

There are countless books written about Venice but, arguably, none written by an author as familiar to readers as John Berendt, whose first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for four years and, thanks in part to the 1997 movie of the same name, achieved a fair degree of awareness outside of the USA as well.

Every author hopes that his/her book will make it on to the bestseller lists, but few, even in their wildest imaginations would dare to consider a four year run for their first book. However, such success is something of a double-edged sword as it sets very high expectations for what follows. Berendt has taken 11 years to publish his second book, and many were watching and waiting to see if it could live up to the success of the first.

On the whole, the verdict is yes, it does!   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (768 words).

Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

...Berendt has delivered an intriguing mosaic of modern life in Venice, which makes for first-rate travel writing, albeit one that lacks a compelling core story to keep one reading into the night.

Booklist - Brad Hooper

This is journalism at its most accomplished; it is creative nonfiction as enveloping and heart embracing as good fiction.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An intriguing tour of mysterious Venice and its most fascinating residents. Berendt does great justice to an exalted city that has rightly fascinated...many...throughout the world.

Jonathan Yardley - The Washington Post

Berendt's inquiry into people, places and aspects of Venice that tourists almost never see, doesn't have as strong a narrative line as Midnight, and no one in it is quite so hilariously and engagingly outre as Lady Chablis, the Savannah drag queen, but the story of the Fenice fire and its aftermath is exceptionally interesting, the cast of characters is suitably various and flamboyant, and Berendt's prose, now as then, is precise, evocative and witty.

USA Today - Deirdre Donahue

Having read Angels, I cannot stop haunting travel websites in search of cheap fares to Italy. Angels is that good.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

Once again, Mr. Berendt makes erudite, inquisitive, nicely skeptical company as he leads the reader through the shadows of what was heretofore better known as a tourist attraction. [A]n urbane, beautifully fashioned book with much exotic charm.

Reader Reviews
Valeria Joyal

I had a great laugh reading this book!
I had a great laugh reading this book! The author has produced a wonderful portrait of local Venetians and British and American expatriates using real life characters. Excellently documented book, well researched. Measured journalistic approach. ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

A Short History of Venice

Venice was founded in the River Po estuary by refugees escaping Attila the Hun in the 5th century. The city is built on more than 100 islands forming the archipelago of the Venetian Lagoon. All transport within the city of Venice is either on foot or by water. Around the 8th century Venice became a city state, like Genoa and Pisa; and with its strategic position at the head of the Adriatic its naval and commercial power were almost invulnerable.

In ...

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