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
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
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
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
Post 30 April 2002