Rena Greenblatt is a 45-year-old Canadian photographer on holiday in Tuscany with Simon, her father, and Ingrid, her irritating Dutch stepmother. She would rather be in Paris with Aziz, her younger lover, but feels guilty that in recent years she has spent so little time with her father whose health is failing.
At first, surly and impatient with Ingrid's lack of knowledge of Renaissance art, Rena is hard to like. As she begins to talk to Subra, (her imaginary sister named, in reverse, in honour of photographer Diane Arbus), a very different and more sympathetic woman emerges.
Nancy Huston's storytelling is complex and at times overly dense but it soon becomes apparent that Rena is an unreliable narrator. Fragments of memory do not coalesce into a whole and details change in the telling. What is clear is that Rena, whose chosen medium is infrared photography, is desperately seeking the simple warmth of another human being, but can only glimpse it through the viewfinder of her camera. She is unable to open herself up to affection and relies on sex, whether real or fantasised, to make some kind of emotional contact with others. Huston's descriptions of her myriad sexual experiences, from early childhood abuse to making love with Aziz, are honest and explicit. There are none of the lazy clichés of pornography or the purple prose of modern romantic fiction, though at times Rena's experience of sex seems more perfunctory than erotic.
As the week's holiday lurches from duty to disaster, more of Rena's previous life is exposed, including her confused relationship with her academic but under-achieving father, her clever but emotionally absent mother, and her malevolent older brother. Huston uses poetic devices such as repetition and lists to depict Rena's emotional turmoil, but at times this is overwrought. The casual slip between first and third person narration is more successful, the former giving immediacy to Rena's intimate memories while the latter captures the unintentional comedy of an adult child grudgingly on holiday with her parents. Meanwhile, Rena receives increasingly terse phone calls from Aziz, who wants her to return to Paris, where there is an explosion of race riots. That she does not grab her camera and run, as she would have previously, signifies that her conversations with Subra have changed her more than she realises.
Huston uses her extensive knowledge of Tuscany and the Renaissance to paint a spectacular backdrop. And the inherent comedy of travellers abroad is a vivid contrast to Rena's internal journey, both being full of starts, stops and wrong turns. In the end it is Rena's exploration of her past, her sexual fantasies and her examination of her many troubled relationships with men that linger in this bold and intelligent novel. What is refreshing is that, wounded as she is, Rena is not depicted as some passive victim but a gutsy woman in search of liberation from her past and serenity in her future.