Wandering through Life: A Memoir

Image of Wandering through Life: A Memoir
Release Date: 
September 19, 2023
Atlantic Monthly Press
Reviewed by: 

In her introduction to this memoir, Donna Leon confesses, “I have never planned more than the first step in anything I’ve done.” Perhaps that is why Wandering through Life is a series of short vignettes rather than a structured autobiography. Leon gives us anecdotes, but not much sense of her private or creative life. This is surprising and disappointing from an author who has so richly described her fictional Commmisario Guido Brunetti, his family, and his colleagues in her celebrated Venetian mystery series. Like the fascinating Signora Elettra in the novels, Leon chooses to remain somewhat mysterious.

What she offers are short, amusing essays that are snapshots of moments in her life arranged in four sections: “America,” which focus on moments in her childhood and adolescence on a New Jersey farm and the beginnings of her love for classical music; “On the Road,” which chronicles some of her experiences teaching in Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia; “Italy,” about her love for Venice and Italian mores and eccentricities; and “Mountains,” about her move to Switzerland and her renewed love for gardening.

The volume is filled with delightful memories. While spending an academic year teaching in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, when women could not go out at night, Donna and her two English speaking colleagues invented an elaborate board game, “$audiopoly,” that was a satire on life in that country. Her pictures of the ruthless behavior of little old ladies at Venetian street markets and the glacially slow workers at the post office will be particularly appreciated by anyone who has lived in Venice.

Again and again, Leon comes back to her love of music, particularly opera. She has her preferences (Handel) and prejudices (Wagner). She offers a charming picture of the night she fell in love with opera on her first visit to the old Metropolitan Opera House to hear Puccini’s Tosca. Leon captures the beauty and the absurdity of the performance starring veteran diva Zinka Milanov, “no longer even in the third flush of her youth.” Leon remembers that “Those three hours changed my life.” It is not surprising that Leon’s first bestselling mystery was set in Venice’s famous opera house.

What one doesn’t get in these charming vignettes is any sense of how her celebrated Guido Brunetti novels came about. Most readers are interested in Donna Leon because of those books. Her relationship to them is not developed. Her life as a writer is kept as mysterious as her personal life.

Wandering through Life is entertaining, if somewhat frustrating. It will, nonetheless, be of interest to Donna Leon’s many fans.