Book Review

Novel Explores Early Day Venice

Lions & Gondolas By Laura Shepard Townsend

Reviewed by Delores Hanney

Venetian Laura Shepard Townsend loves Venice and it shows. Opening the stunning mystical cover of her latest book, Lions and Gondolas, is something like stepping into a time machine to be whisked away – through a potent combination of painstaking research and elegant writing – to a viscerally felt presence in Venice, California, circa 1920, where a “perfumed gardens of the gods on the temporal plane of fantasy” aspect prevailed, according to an opinion in the Los Angeles Times.

Venice, indeed, radiated a heady blend of enchantment and excitement. With Townsend as guide, one revels in the splendid excesses: the chronic bathing beauty contests, endless parades of pretty starlets advertising new movies, and many reckless airplane wing walkers stealing our breath away. Thousands of twinkling lights lined the shores of the romantic canals. Everything and nothing were reason for a celebration, for which the whole town was swanned out in abundant embellishments by decorating maven Arthur Reese, to further heat up the happy quotient of the occasion.

Visionary cum founding father Abbot Kinney is all over the place: accessible, protective, cheerleading.  We roam U.S. Island at the confluence of three of Venice’s original canals, a compound of pretty, white-shuttered bungalows awash in lush plantings of colorful flowers. And also the pier with its concessionaires and rides and amusements, and the huge sea lion that served as the aquarium’s welcoming greeter.

Townsend also gives us the less jolly experience of Venice in the time of the swine flu pandemic, when folks scurried around behind the protection of gauze masks. Posted signs listed ways to avoid infection, including the rather mysterious injunction to “Drink plenty of water and keep your bowels open;” and roving helmeted patrols tacked bright green quarantine notices on the doors of those failing a health test.

Overlaid upon the compelling true-to-life Venice backdrop there’s a swell fictional factor to be avidly consumed.

Lions and Gondolas is sort of like Catcher in the Rye with a feminine persuasion. Its first person narrator, Angelica Grastende, is Holden Caulfield in a skirt, stomping about, all adolescent angst and alienation and narcissistic self-importance. But, whereas Holden had only coming-of-age madness to deal with, this poor babe’s teenage self-individuation process has the complicating issues of assimilation and skin tone to cope with, plus the whole contentious early-twentieth-century’s shifting paradigm regarding a woman’s place in the American social structure.

Favored by destiny’s consent – foretold in Grandmother Lena’s Tarot card reading – gypsies Angelica, her mother Ava, and grandmother, along with their pair of pilfered lions, arrive in Venice, three fugitives from a small traveling European circus (and Ava’s husband), panting with keenness to begin life afresh in the sun- soaked promised land on the Southern California coast.

The realization of the plan hinges on the transmutation of gentle Ava into “La Domadora,” the great tamer of lions. Expecting this radical a makeover seems overly optimistic, but it’s brought to fruition by the arrival of Mabel Stark, the honest-to-god, real life tiger trainer of global repute, who generously sets herself to the task of fairy god mothering Ava into a respectable trainer of large cats and a popular attraction on the Venice pier.

Meanwhile, Angelica flings herself furiously into reinvention as a typical American youth while constantly at odds with her Grandmother Lena, who is usually as cranky as a bear with a toothache and always haranguing about maintaining the traditional Romany ways. Rechristening herself Anne, in the way of most kids, she sometimes sells out on herself in order to promote a sense of belonging with her new, aggressively shallow teenage peers. But fortunately, she is blessed by the coming of a mentor, too, in the person of Abbot Kinney, assuming the role of wise, adoring uncle. Not that she always heeds his advice, to be sure.

Woven through it all are glowing bits of wisdom that make one stop short to reflect. “Now I know that love always possesses a fragility to it that lets it be forgotten in a breath,” for example. Descriptions of alluring grace call out for re-reading several times – for the pure joy of it – as well.

In this “memoir” of her early years in Venice, Angelica Grastende recalls,  “I first entered Venice, on foot, much like a pilgrim who enters a holy place, as a seeker, stirred with expectation.”

Immersion in Laura Shepard Townsend’s delicious second book in the Destiny’s Consent series, might cause readers to find themselves enjoying a similar sensation.

I did.

Categories: Book Review, History