Book Review: Wandering Through Life by Donna Leon

Arts Reviewer, Dr Diana Carroll, reviews Wandering Through Life: A Memoir by best-selling crime writer Donna Leon.
Dr Diana Carroll

American author Donna Leon has millions of fans worldwide for her series of murder mysteries set in Venice, the city where she lived and worked for more than a quarter of a century. The novels feature Commissario Guido Brunetti, a rather atypical protagonist who is gentle, intelligent, well-grounded, and even a little philosophical. He is not the driven and damaged stereotypical senior detective we often see in crime fiction.

Leon has taken a new approach to writing here with this charming memoir. It is a collection of small vignettes, each just a few pages long, about her thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The book is true to its title of ‘wandering through life’. Leon also acknowledges the nature of the ‘unreliable memoir’, as Clive James aptly put it, when she talks of “the elastic vision we have of the truth”.

The book is divided into four parts, each with brief chapters regaling us with the adventures and observations of a life well-lived. Part One is about growing up in America in the 1950s with wonderful descriptions of the Italian-Irish-Catholic community of New Jersey; from there it follows her life as she finds her place in the world eventually settling in Italy and becoming a best-selling author almost by accident. Over her long and colourful life she’s also lived in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China.

Her love of books and her passion for music are two key themes throughout. She says how much she loved books as a small child: “and so here I am…making my living by playing with words”. She also adores opera, saying of the first one she attended, as a young woman in New York, that “those three hours changed my life”.

Each brief chapter, just two or three pages, is its own little story, so you can pick and mix as you go. They largely stand alone and don’t need any prior context; indeed, each one is really just a brief dinner party anecdote. The book is a neat little package, perfect for taking on the plane or reading on the train.

Curiously, even after a careful reading, you are left feeling like you still don’t really know her at all – this is a polite conversation between acquaintances, not a tell-all confessional. Indeed, one of the most enduring images for me is of her describing geraniums as “horrible flowers”! The most moving chapter is undoubtedly the last, titled Miss Brill, where she confronts the reality of being “anziana” (elderly or ancient) at 80 years of age.

Donna Leon’s great skill as a writer is to treat all of these things with an enviable lightness of touch and an unaffected sense of humour about herself and her own life. This is a delightful memoir that will prompt you to think about your life and the choices you have made along the way. Highly recommended.

Penguin Random House, RRP $35.00

Release date 19 Sep 2023, available now for pre-order online

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