Andrea Lee is like a character in one of her own short stories. She lives in a 600-year-old villa high in the hills of Turin, Italy, with her husband, an Italian baron. She has two children, a son who is seven and a 17-year-old daughter.

She used to be a staff writer for The New Yorker based in Rome. She came to that city in the late 1980s with her American husband. They got divorced and she stayed on to work for the magazine. She moved to Milan, where she met her current husband, the baron.

"He's really kind of half a baron -- they're common here. His father is a Sicilian baron of some kind, but it doesn't really mean anything. That and two lire will get you on the metro," says Lee.

After they got married, they decided to return to his family villa in Turin, about an hour's drive from Milan. She describes the city as the Detroit of Italy because of the fact that Fiat manufactures its cars there and because of the pollution. But their villa is up high where the air is clearer and the view pleasant. Lee continued to write articles for The New Yorker about the fashionable world of Milan, including a profile of Gianni Versace not long before he was killed. But recently, she is writing more fiction.

"It's kind of like being bilingual," says Lee about the experience of working both with factual journalism and fictional literature. "You just shut off one part of your brain and you work with the other." Lee likens it to her son's ability to speak only in English to her and in Italian to his father without missing anything in the transfer.

Recently, Lee has been writing short stories, many of which have been published in The New Yorker and other magazines, and she has collected some of them into a book, Interesting Women. They are tales more often about the relationships between women than between men and women. But they are also about the experience of being foreign in some way.

"The theme just emerged," she says, over the telephone from her home. "I was writing about what I saw around me. Living abroad, I started to write about being a foreigner."

Many of the stories are about an American woman living among Italians, or married to an Italian. Some are about being a light-skinned black American woman in Europe. Or a black woman in America, which she characterizes in many ways as the experience of a foreigner, or at least one who is on the outside.

Details from her own life quite naturally crop up in her fiction with some nicely imagined embellishment. There are ex-wives divorced from the same man who remain interested in each other. There are the interesting single women one meets on vacation. There is even a story about drinking cappuccino.

The story destined to be the most notorious in the book is "The Birthday Present." An American wife in her late 30s hires the services of two expensive prostitutes to entertain her Italian husband on his 55th birthday. It begins as a joke suggested by the husband's best friend, but the wife takes it seriously to the horror of the friend who tells her, "... you aren't an Italian wife, and there are nuances you'll never understand, even if you live here for a hundred years."

While she's dealing with some fairly unconventional material on the surface, the more unexpected element of the story is the relationship between the wife and the prostitutes.

"My husband doesn't read English that well and he thought I was writing about this erotic threesome. No, I had to explain, it's not that, this is serious," she says, laughing.

Naturally, she delves into the complicated sex lives of European men and American women, but she deals with it on a psychological level rather than erotically.

"Full Moon Over Milan" takes place, for the most part, over dinner with three young American women and three middle-aged Italian businessmen. Lee observes among the men the jostling for respect and attention and also the power the foreign women have to see their games.

"Without having been out with them before, she knows from experience that soon they will begin vying with each other to pay for this dinner, will get up and pretend to visit the toilet but really go off to settle things with the headwaiter or to discover with irritation that one of the others pretending to visit the toilet has gotten there beforehand," writes Lee.

Her characters also know that most of the men in their 50s are on their second or third much younger wife, have a mistress, too, and are looking to see what they might be able to get from these women.

"The book hasn't been translated into Italian, but the Italian press who have interviewed me, all they want to know about are the Italian men in the book," says Lee. "I keep saying it's not about Italian men and they say yes, but tell us some more."

Her husband has told her he doesn't mind what she writes about or what she says about her work as long as she makes him sound good. "So I start every interview with 'Now, my husband is a wonderful man ...' "

Living in a foreign country and being married to a non-American has given Lee endless material to work with and she can't see it coming to an end. She has a new story slated to run soon in The New Yorker, which she says has something to do with the New World and the Old World. "I'm about to start working on a novel. It's a book about the state of being a foreigner." She laughs and almost apologizes for it. "I'll just keep going until I get it out of my system. When I have something else to write about, I'll do that."   - by Jeannie Marshall     National Post     30 April 2002

 


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