I may be the only person on two continents who, until late last month, didn't know beans about Amanda Knox. I did know she was some kid with a pretty face who got in deep trouble in Italy, but that was about it. Amanda didn't show up on PBS NewsHour or the pages of the New York Times -- well, maybe once or twice in the Times but there were other things going on -- and in the grand scheme of things there have been people and events far more compelling than Amanda's saga in recent years.
But I was invited to a party honoring Red Room writer Nina Burleigh recently, and when invited to lovely parties sure to feature interesting people, in homes with views overlooking San Francisco Bay, I tend to go.
Nina Burleigh is more than a pretty face. Author of the recently released The Fatal Gift of Beauty (Nina's Red Room page needs updating now that it's out, but who's got time?) she has a handfull of notable other books dealing with nefarious deeds around the globe and some fascinating people and places. What she did with Fatal Gift of Beauty is build a fascinating story around people you would just as soon never meet.
The ancient walled city of Perugia, Italy, the workings (or sometimes non-workings) of the Italian justice system, the clashes of culture and personality that throw harsh lights on people of all ages come into page-turning focus under Burleigh's talented hand.
The only thing missing, in fact -- and maybe it's part of what makes the book such a singular achievement -- is any redeeming feature in the lives of the cast of characters. Burleigh isn't withholding anything, the redeeming features just generally seem not to be there. I mean, young step-sisters dragged to an adjacent room to await the release-that-didn't-happen of their "grown-up" sister on trial for a sex murder, and subsequently dragged through a phalanx of photographers by their grim-faced father? Could they at least have waited back at the hotel?
Or the students and non-students and roommates and friends and assorted enemies? Wild oats have been sewed by students abroad for generations; Amanda and her associates seem to have tried hard to set a record for drug abuse, meaningless sex and wasting of lives.
The Fatal Gift of Beauty is a meticulously researched glimpse of a unique time and place. In light of all the unsavory goings-on across the U.S. today, Amanda and company might even come across as just misguided youths. Still, you will probably prefer reading about them to hanging out with them.
As for the party... Nina offered gripping insights into those times and places, interesting people asked interesting questions, the hostess was charming as usual, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge was spectacular as ever, and I had a ball.
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