Recently widowed, unhappily stuck on a pricey whiplash tour of Italy, Elizabeth Berman comes face to face with the first documented painting of a teardrop in human history, and in the presence of that tearful mother, and the arresting company of the renowned and anonymous women painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel, she wakes up to the possibility that she is not lost.Mitchell left me everything, just as he promised. “Everything,” he liked to say during his last month on the sofa, “everything will be yours,” as if it wasn’t yet. I was left with that and two adult children who could not tolerate my sitting in my home by myself–admittedly, rather too often in a capacious pink flannel nightgown and the green cardigan Mitchell was wearing on the afternoon he died. That’s how Elizabeth winds up on a tour better suited to her late-husband, a Dante scholar. Mitchell masterminded the itinerary as a surprise for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Itching to leave as soon as she arrives in Padua, Elizabeth’s efforts to book a ticket home are stymied by her aggressively supportive children, the ministrations of an incomprehensibly Italian hotel staff, and the prospect of forfeiting the sizable chunk of cash she shelled out for the trip. But there are consolations–arugula pizza and ancient arcades and Aperol spritzes in the piazza with her odd lot of fellow castaways. Instead of deconstructing their disappointing former lives, they are drawn together by their longing to understand how something beautiful is made. They dive headlong into the Arena Chapel, trying to untangle Giotto himself, whose frescoes in Padua secured his reputation as the world’s greatest painter. Michael Downing has devised a divine romantic comedy. Tracking the hopes and heartaches and hangovers of a woman with a history of disappearing, The Chapel shows us that happiness is as fragile as a fresco by Giotto.
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MICHAEL DOWNING is the author of nine books, including the national bestseller Perfect Agreement; Breakfast with Scot, which was adapted a feature film; Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center; and Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. A frequent commentator in the national media on Congress and the clocks, he teaches creative writing at Tufts University.