Excerpt from The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Bellini Madonna

A Novel

by Elizabeth Lowry

The Bellini Madonna
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2009, 352 pages
    May 2010, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Print Excerpt


I met Anna Roper last month while I was trying to rob her at her home, in the village of Mawle in Berkshire.

I write this. I write this to explain — no, that is not the beginning. Let me start again. I write this out of an overwhelming need to confess, to record, and, just possibly, to apologize. There. I have set down the first few strokes of the pattern. To apologize to whom? To Anna? To myself, for making such a hopeless hash of everything? Or to the universe? I feel that it somehow deserves my most abject assurances of regret. I know that running away to Asolo now, at the end of this terrible summer, was a mistake. The stones of the buildings are still as ripe with sun as honeycombs, fat and warm with false promise. The Italian sun itself rises each day as though nothing has happened, awful in its innocence. Only the noonday shutters avert their faces, as if in sorrow or in shame. So this is what has become of my life’s ambition—

There was a moment, on the flight over, when it all seemed insignificant. As the plane flopped down through the crevasse of summer sky that opened sheer above Treviso, the true proportions of things were suddenly revealed: a toy cow; a child’s blue hair ribbon, negligently draped in imitation of a stream; a putty church. The last three weeks were erased. They belonged elsewhere, to another time and place. Here everything was newly hatched, blameless. I took a fierce gulp of airplane gin and peered down through the dusty doubled glass of the window at a landscape that, miraculously, did not contain me. If I could have held things there forever, with my maudlin, drunken self permanently suspended above the unsuspecting life below, I swear I would have. But then the craft dipped and we were plummeting down toward the black lip of a reservoir, a looming farm, the unscrolling tarmac of a landing strip. I had arrived in Italy, and within a few minutes everything was life-sized again.

My confession should begin here. My name is Thomas Joseph Lynch. I am fifty years old and until last year I was an art historian. In spite of everything, the term still suggests to me something harmlessly quixotic: a savant in a skullcap, a scholar in his robe; or at the very least a distinguished old fart with elbow patches, dedicated to the complex understanding of simple beauty. Simple beauty! As if the human eye is capable of perceiving any such thing! We cook up meanings, endless interpretations of what is. We smear and smudge everything with our quest for pattern, with our insane appetite for words—

Let me introduce a lapidary pause while the camera lenses sparkle and flash in the chilly shadows of the temple of justice. My reader, I know that you will be the jury in this case. Most certainly you will be my judge.

Why did I do it? Because I couldn’t help myself, of course. Because Anna stood before me so meekly, holding the front door invitingly open. Question: what do such innocents have in common? They never knew what hit them—casualties, all, of a lethal convergence of apparently random currents, of an accumulation of old wrongs and hurts, not to mention old obsessions, gathering purpose in the fetid cockles of the human heart. A weal on tender skin. The cry of a child. In Anna’s case, a by now faded picture in a shilling book, many years ago.

Enough; I can’t bear it. Enough.

It is a shock to be here at last, in Asolo. What do the guidebooks say? “Town of a hundred horizons.” “Renaissance gem of the Veneto.” “Home of exiled royalty and poets.” Originally home— did I dream the whole thing? No, the diary is lying here in front of me on Professor Ludovico Puppi’s writing table, torn but perfectly real—of my Madonna. It was naturally to Asolo, just a few miles north of Treviso, that I came when everything went bellyup at Mawle; can you see the connection? I had to run somewhere; I could no longer live with myself. Where better for the disappointed pilgrim-scholar to go? Home, then, yes. I admit that I was hoping for some sort of miracle; for a welcome, for redemption. Instead I merely found my own self lying in wait for me here, as the little shit always does.

Excerpted from The Bellini Madonna, by Elizabeth Lowry, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Lowry. All rights reserved.

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