Sylvia is starting a new novel, a fantasy for adult readers, set in Thalia, the Florence-resembling imaginary city that was the setting for a successful YA trilogy she published decades before. The protagonist thinks he knows how he and Sylvia can step off the wheel of mortality altogether. All he has to do is convince her.
... begs to be devoured slowly, in courses that may be individually savored and committed to memory. Walton’s prose is kin to chef Fabio Picchi’s carrots, or maybe the porcini mushroom soup: excellence wrought from the most prosaic of elements. It even includes something like Maria Cassi’s political comedy: There are anecdotes about the abstract nature of Victorian women’s legs, Canadian threats and biblical inerrancy. A rather lengthy paragraph on the Canadian emigration system is especially, ah . . . poignant. But for those (like me) who have only experienced Firenze in books, this is likely not the most effective route to explain this book. Let me try again ... Walton’s snark keeps any potential mawkishness at bay, and the result is a thoroughly memorable story about magic, meddling gods, learning to love properly and all the ways the worlds we create can save us in the ones we’re born into ... It’s a worthwhile reminder that creativity has value and that the proper standard of value is rarely monetary. Or What You Will is the literal manifestation of escapism, but it also may be among escapism’s most effective champions. Walton’s Firenze is an island of charming dysfunction in a world whose dysfunction more often frightens, and its fictional analogue, Thalia, is a theatrical idyll. Walton’s narrator is equal parts Melpomene and the archangel Michael, though he denies the latter. It is fantastical, but tangible all the same, less escapist than transporting, and suffused with joy and the tacit hope that maybe, just maybe, the salvation Sylvia finds in crafting her books might be attainable for the reader as well.
Thalia has its own peculiar politics, with an entertaining entanglement of characters from Shakespeare and history, and when the narrator sets his plan in motion, there are ripples that will disturb the long, comfortable rut of an immortal city of artisans. It is interesting to see this approach to the consequences of immortality and what it means to the creation of art to have stopped death by stopping progress. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s situation is much more individual, focused on her own current experience. Fans of Walton’s style will be overjoyed with her storytelling here.
This is a delightful, odd book, and I was by turns fascinated, enthralled, and a little confused, but ultimately happy with the twists and turns of the text. Walton combines many of her passions into this story, and you will find yourself at times going on digressions with her, as our unnamed narrator delves into the importance and meaning of various works of art, restaurants and ways of preparing food, the creative works of Renaissance Italy, as well as what can almost be described as Shakespearean fanfic ... If you think there are layers to this story, don’t worry, there absolutely are. But while the meta-commentary can be a lot, and the digressions entertaining but seemingly without reason, the two combine artfully ... the sort of book that may be doing a bit too much at any given time, but you’d never fault it for that. As a treatise on art, and the things we make, and the love we put into making them as we hope they will outlive us, Walton must. She must spin multiple plates, each of them rich moments of drama or education, or relationships, because this is the sort of book that demands that level of richness. If one is to pursue immortality, nothing can be left on the table ... may be at times quirky and rambling, but it truly captures the heart of what it means to make art, to tell stories, and why those things are so important. I can honestly say I’ve never read another novel like it, and I’m very glad, in reading it, to have had the chance to do my small part in contributing to immortality.