Rome is the incubator for the new love of two foreign correspondents. Later they will call those years their honeymoon, because within weeks of their wedding, she is beaten while covering a student demonstration and he, covering another rebellion, is shot through the spine by a sniper.
Despite its lyrical title, "Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy" is no "Under the Tuscan Sun." Only half of it unfolds in Italy. And while Butturini does eat, pray and love when her husband falls into deep depression, the eating is not with gusto. The praying is desperate, weeping and banging her fist against the back of the pew in front of her. And the loving is tinged with despair and anger at what has befallen them.
This is a harrowing memoir of depression and the pall it casts like smog over the Roman sun. And while Butturini's memories of childhood meals in America are lovely, they too are set against her hazy knowledge of her own mother's recurrent depressions.
That it will not be chipper or romantic is apparent from the first words of its prologue: "Two ghosts. That was how a friend described us when we returned to Rome in 1992. John and I had been away five years, and though neither of us knew it at the time, we returned, I think, because Rome seemed the most likely place to recuperate and cast out the demons we had picked up in our absence."
The author is brilliant at pacing the unveiling of those demons, which kept me racing ahead through sentimental reveries about food, even a two-and-a-half page accounting of what one Campo dei Fiori vendor was selling from his stall the day before the couple departed for a new posting in Warsaw.
Butturini crafts sentences the way a master pizza-maker tosses dough. Listen to the rhythm of this description of one of her food yearnings: "In fall, I want and need a fat persimmon, quartered, opened up like a flower, sprinkled with lemon juice and eaten slowly, with ceremony and a spoon." She describes her compulsion to prepare three daily meals for her aloof husband: "Like a potter centering clay on a spinning wheel, the mere action of cooking centered me, kept me close, available, ready to help, kept us fed, kept me sufficiently focused on present tasks so that I wouldn't panic about the future, kept me going through the slow passing of a string of bad days, weeks and months."
Did you feel the spinning? That structure is deliberate.
If I had been her editor, I might have axed a "magical" or two, and a handful of references to the handfuls of parsley that finish so many dishes. And I might have asked for more from her husband. We rarely hear him speak or reflect. His side of the story is a mystery.
That turns "Keeping the Feast" into not quite "a couple's story," as the title promises, but one woman's effort to give order to her life and marriage and serve it up to strangers with a generous handful of grace.
Susan Ager, a former columnist at the Detroit Free Press, is at email@example.com