A poignant scene at the heart of Mary Bly's new novel, "Lizzie & Dante" (the Dial Press, available June 1), takes place on a yacht anchored off the coast of Elba. In the yacht's library, the character Lizzie falls into a conversation with Joseph, a poet, a plain-spoken, cantankerous old dude.
She tells Joseph her secret: She is dying of cancer.
The two discuss James Wright's famous poem "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."
(If you don't remember that poem, you should look it up — it's the one with the heart-stopping last line: "I have wasted my life.")
"Wright was good at talking about difficult stuff," Joseph tells Lizzie. "What we need from poetry, what we require, is a way of talking about the impossible."
It's a thrilling scene to find buried deep in a romantic novel about love, death and Italy, but not at all surprising given the book's author. Mary Bly is the daughter of Minnesota poet Robert Bly, who was with Wright that afternoon at Bill Duffy's farm when Wright lazed in the hammock, watching the chicken hawk and the bronze butterfly, listening to the clanging of the cowbells.
The scene fits quite naturally in the book, but it is also a lovely homage to Mary's father and his poet friends Wright and Donald Hall (upon whom the character of Joseph is based).
"Lizzie & Dante" is not Mary Bly's first book, but it is the first novel to be published under her real name. She has published a memoir and a series of historical romance novels — yes, the kind once called "bodice rippers" — under the pen name Eloisa James.
"Lizzie & Dante" is something different, a moving modern-day love story laced with poetry.
Like Bly herself, Lizzie is a professor at Fordham University and a Shakespeare scholar. Bly is a cancer survivor, diagnosed shortly after her mother, writer Carol Bly, died of cancer. Lizzie is battling stage three cancer, and the outlook is grim.
She has come to Elba to vacation with friends, one of whom is writing a screenplay based on a modern interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet," which leads to many fascinating discussions about character and authorial intent. (Is Romeo actually in love with Mercutio? Is Juliet the one who is filled with lust and pushes things?)
When the Elba vacation is over, Lizzie plans to go home and die. She has decided against any more treatments.
But then she meets Dante, a chef. He's funny and charming, well-read and intelligent, and now what? Is he just a summer fling? Does she have to tell him that she is dying? Is it fair for her to give up when so many people love her?
A turning point comes in that yacht library when Joseph tells her, "You are Wright's bronze butterfly, an exquisite gift to the world."
"Who'd want to be a butterfly?" Lizzie asks herself. "Beautiful, short-lived."
Born in Minnesota, educated at Harvard, Oxford and Yale, Bly is a scholar who has always loved historical romances.
"But my father was a poet, and he would have preferred that I had fallen in love with Whitman," she wrote in a 2005 essay in the New York Times. "So he laid down the law: For every romance, I read a classic."
Her bodice rippers are the thinking woman's romance novels, marked by sophisticated writing and attentiveness to authentic period details. I hope — and assume — she will continue to write them.
But it's also good to see her shuck the rustling taffeta of the Georgian era for a bikini and sandals, and to see her sizzling sex scenes laced with a bit of poetry.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's senior editor for books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.