Review: The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

It seems like whenever there’s a good book about a place, we’re usually told “It’s so good it makes you want to go there.” John Berendt’s first book — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — apparently did that for Savannah. But in the case of The City of Falling Angels, I felt that even if I went to Venice a hundred times, I’d never get the kinds of insights I got from reading this book.

Like so many of the millions of readers who found John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil an endless source of pure reading pleasure, I devoured this book.  Berendt has now taken us to Venice and he digs beneath its surface — just as he did in Savannah — to find fascinating tales of intrigue and human folly. I found myself devouring it and yet at the same time wanting to slowly savor its interwoven stories.

While Berendt introduced me to Savannah in Midnight, with Venice he took me to a place I’ve always wanted to visit — only to discover that I could only have been one of the merest of tourists on my would-be trips there until I had John Berendt as my guide. He goes beneath the obvious fascination of the city’s history and art to introduce you to Counts and Marchesas, electricians and fruit vendors, artists and poets, criminals and politicians. Just the way Venice is so unlike any other place — a tiny, canal-filled, floating museum of a city that once was actually a world power — I learned that its inhabitants, perhaps inevitably, are equally unlike those of any other place.

The main storyline in The City of Falling Angels centers around a fire that destroyed the historic Fenice Opera House in January 1996. The Fenice had been undergoing extensive renovations and the first reports indicated that the fire was most likely either an accident or possibly the result of negligence. Arson had pretty much been ruled out. Quite by chance, Berendt arrived in Venice just days after the fire. As a journalist Berendt simply could not resist and began poking around the city to try to determine what might have happened. His ongoing investigation would last a number of years and lead him in a multitude of directions. He would encounter a whole host of characters and players that range from the mildly interesting to the downright bizarre. As in Midnight, Berendt is not content to merely report a gripping story. He once again introduces you to a series of memorable characters, some petty and venal, some filled with charm and wisdom, but all fascinating. And although I had no idea where all of this was leading I must confess that I found the story damned compelling and was hard-pressed to put it down.

While this book is a work of nonfiction, Berendt has an amazing ability to delve into a place and get its inhabitants to divulge their secrets to him like a great journalist. He combines this skill with the art of a novelist in getting the people to tell their stories. Such great writers as Henry James, Thomas Mann, Lord Byron and Daphne du Maurier have famously set novels and short stories in Venice. John Berendt gets Venice to tell its story.


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