It seems right that the lovers in Niall Williams's As It Is in Heaven hail from Italy and Ireland, those sentimental favorites among nations. Williams won kudos and laurels, fans and fame for his first novel, Four Letters of Love, and his second finds him once again illuminating a simple love affair with his own special brand of fine and even brave mawkishness. Dubliner Stephen Griffin, though possessed of a "thin and long" body, is stunted emotionally by the loss of his mother and sister in a tragic car wreck. That is, until one evening he ends up at a tiny concert hall in County Clare, listening to the Venetian beauty Gabriella Castoldi play the violin. Williams writes with fairy-tale breathlessness of the audience: "The room was balmy with delight. And when the people sat again for the slow and romantic melancholy of the Puccini, they were pillowed on a deep and heartfelt gladness.... Stephen looked at the woman whose name he did not yet know and his heart raced." Such mauvish passages abound. Here is an author who never met a bold pronouncement on the subject of Love that he didn't, well, Love. At one point, for instance, Stephen "heard the victory of Love over Death." What makes Williams's writing work--to the degree that it does work--is the way his fuzzy, myopic generalizations are coupled with keen observation: "Stephen danced like a man who had been given wooden legs. They flew out in sharp angles and measured air like a pair of pincers." A stack of suitcases is "an Italian hilltown." At its best, this gentle magical realism reads like Mark Helprin without the irony. And like Helprin, Williams is in thrall to the glamour of geography. Stephen and Gabriella pursue each other through Clare and Kerry to Venice and back. The course of true love never did run smooth, but the bumps here prove none too discouraging. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
Williams, a gifted Irish writer, was known only for nonfiction until his first novel Four Letters of Love reaped a chorus of praise (including a PW Best Books accolade) a couple of years ago. Now he has tried to repeat the trick, but unfortunately the freshness that leaped from the pages has become mere practiced calculation. His hero, Stephen Griffin, is a dim young man declining into premature senility as a history teacher, whose life is transformed by the rather improbable arrival of a beautiful but deeply unhappy young Italian violinist, Gabriella Castoldi, to play a concert at a little West Ireland hotel. Griffin is struck dumb with passion; since symptoms of magic realism abound, smells of white lilies and a general glowing aura convince those around him he is in love. Gabriella, emerging from an unhappy affair, decides to stay on in Ireland; Griffin meets her again and they have a fling; she goes back to Venice and finds she is pregnant; he follows but cannot find her; she comes back; finally, they carry out the wishes of an old blind seafarer (shades of Under Milk Wood's Captain Cat) and build a beautiful little music school by the sea. Williams is a felicitous phrasemaker, and he conjures up some lovely poetic images of weather and seascapes. Passages about the ineffable beauty of music and the emotional impact it can have are touching. But the sense of delighted surprise that was so constant in Letters is notably absent; the story is far more rigidly structured, and the characters, from Stephen's poor dad dying of cancer and trying to give his money away, to a chirpy lady who keeps a greengrocer shop and knows what fruits to sell for all ills of the heart, are tired clich?s. There are pleasures here for those who enjoy the equivalent of a beautifully photographed, sad movie, but Williams had seemed capable of much more. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club alternates; author tour.
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