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A Tale of Two Women, a Century Apart

Jun 20, 2008 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Venice has been a magnet for artists and writers for centuries.

With its delicate canals, quaint gondolas and marbled museums, the Italian city hardly seems to have changed with the passing of years. Venice is a place that "condenses time," says author Deborah Weisgall. That's one reason why she chose it as the backdrop for her latest book, The World Before Her, which tells the stories of two women and two marriages a century apart.

In the chapters dated 1880, writer George Eliot — whose real name was Marion Evans and who was arguably the most famous woman in England at the time — has just gotten married at the age of 60 and is spending her honeymoon in Venice. She soon discovers that her much younger husband isn't all he seems to be, and her marriage begins to fray.

Eliot's story is interspersed with that of another artist, a sculptress named Caroline Spingold who travels to Venice in 1980 with her much older husband to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. Both women are in the twilight of their careers, and both are struggling to balance their work with their yearning for romantic love.

That their stories unfold through the lens of Venice makes the city something of a real character in the novel, Weisgall says.

"It's a place in a way that magnifies emotion," she tells host Liane Hansen. "If you're happy in Venice you're happier than you ever have been. If you're unhappy in Venice, with this strange watery light that just seems to reflect parts of yourself that you weren't aware of, you're very unhappy."

Weisgall says The World Before Her has been brewing for a long time.

"I think in an odd way I've been thinking about setting a book in Venice ever since I fell in love with my husband, even though he wasn't there," she says, laughing.

And how might an author like George Eliot — who once wrote an essay titled Silly Novels by Lady Novelists — react to the book?

"I hope she wouldn't think it was silly," Weisgall says, adding that Eliot likely would understand the need to address some of the serious issues that women face while at the same time being swept up in a "rip-roaring" tale.

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