I’ve owned Four Seasons in Rome since fall 2016 after a professor recommended it to me, but I was waiting for the right time to read it. Back in 2016, it was too soon after my semester abroad, and I didn’t want to overwrite memories of Rome and Italy with Doerr’s accounts of it. I feared that I would never get to go back to Rome, so I would wait until I was much older to read about the place I loved but couldn’t visit. But then life took its course, and I returned to Rome for eight days in winter 2018 on my honeymoon. Now, my memories of Rome are multilayered; it is sometimes hard to remember which trip memories belong to. So I figured that summer 2018 was as good a time as any to read a writer’s account of Rome, even though I knew the book make me miss it.
Four Seasons in Rome is a memoir slash travel book about living in Rome for a year. After winning the Rome Prize, author Anthony Doerr and his family pack up and move to Rome for the opportunity to work on a writing project at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. As if moving to a foreign country wasn’t stressful and difficult enough, Doerr and his wife bring along their newborn twins and learn how to be parents abroad without the typical resources available to them in the United States.
This book is simply stunning. I don’t even know what to say about it. It captures everything I love and cherish about Rome even though it’s written from the perspective of a writer and new parent who is there to write a novel. Doerr sees Italian life and the city and articulates them perfectly; in some ways, his words captured Rome better than photos I took when I lived there. I know I’ll return to passages to remember my own memories of Rome.
“But in Rome, I’m learning, practically everything is set in opposition to something else—not only its most famous baroque architects, but its founding twins, the crypts beneath its churches, the hovels next to its palazzi, the empires within empires. Alleys rear and twist and cough up their cobblestones like big, black molars. … I look up and realize I have been here before. Still, I’m lost.”Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome
But the beautifully written observations and descriptions of Rome are just one layer of the book. Another layer is Doerr’s discussion of craft and writing. Doerr talks about trying to establish a writing habit in a foreign country; the story he’s developing, which becomes All the Light We Cannot See (a New York Times bestseller); and being sucked into the city’s rich beauty, history, and layers. I found this reflection on the writing process relatable, inspiring, and helpful. I’m beginning to find that discussions of craft that take a “here’s my journey” rather than a “here’s how to do this” approach are often more effective, and this book is no exception. I loved reading about how Doerr struggles to write the novel he intended to; instead, he gets distracted writing about Rome, walking around the city, and researching its history. I, too, had intended to write more when I studied abroad in Rome, but found myself walking around the city instead.
Four Seasons in Rome is also a deeply touching—though not overly sentimental—story about Doerr and his wife adjusting to being new parents…of twins…in a foreign country. Yikes! Doerr’s writing brings you right into that first year of parenthood by interlacing vivid details of parenting with reflection on what it all means. I cringed as he describes carrying his babies’ stroller up and down a path that was hard for me as a 20-year-old to ascend without getting out of breath. He watches his children grow up in the span of a year as he himself grows and adjusts to an unfamiliar country, language, and environment. That sense of growth, of progress, of time marching on, is palpable within the book, especially as Doerr calls attention to it and reflects on it.
All in all, this memoir is incredibly satisfying. If you’ve traveled to Rome, you’ll be whisked right back with Doerr’s descriptions of the streets and the way the sunlight hits the roofs at sunset. If you’ve never traveled to Rome, you’ll still appreciate the reflections on parenting, writing, living in a new place, and life.