Friday, August 31, 2007

Reading Journal: The Light in the Piazza

Elizabeth Spencer, The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Includes the novella The Light in the Piazza.

Adam Guettel's Tony Award-winning musical, The Light in the Piazza, is based on a novella by the Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer, which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1960. Two years later, it became a successful MGM film. The novella is a relatively simple story about a mother and daughter from Winston-Salem on vacation together in Florence. In the novella, we learn early on that the daughter, Clara, was in an accident years earlier, and has "the mental age of a child of ten." Outwardly, Clara is a beautiful young woman, and she attracts the attention of an amorous young Italian man named Fabrizio. But it isn't just her outward beauty that captivates Fabrizio and his family—it's Clara's childlike innocence and purity. Because she has the mind of a child, she is soon speaking fluently in Italian, and she develops a childlike devotion to the Virgin Mary that pleases Fabrizio's Catholic family. But the real focus of the story is Clara's mother, Margaret, who struggles with the realization that her daughter is capable of feeling and inspiring true love. She struggles to let her daughter go and live her own life. It's a lovely little story, beautifully written, and one can see in it the potential for a Broadway musical. In the end, though, Adam Guettel's music captivates me more and stays in my head longer than Elizabeth Spencer's story.

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