(To learn about Barbara Bonfigli and Café Tempest, feel free to visit any of the following sites. This review is one of many in Café Tempest’s “virtual tour,” hosted by Tell Me Press. To see the complete tour schedule visit the tour site. Find out more about Barbara Bonfigli on her website.)
This mythical memoir is written with a touch that tells you it’s very likely based on Barbara Bonfigli’s own travels, and she could have easily written a travel book about her experiences on a small Greek island. Indeed, Bonfigli is an avowed travel addict and a published travel writer. She says of herself, “Maps are my recreational drug of choice,” a statement that I’m sure has many of us laughing and ruefully recognizing ourselves at the same time.
However, a true memoir probably wouldn’t have included the elements of absurdity and personal drama that form the backbone of Café Tempest. Sarah, the main character, has decided to spend a longer than usual sojourn on the underdeveloped island of Pharos, where she vacations every year. Running away from a failing love affair in London, the thirty-something American theater producer is determined to get herself some peace and an actual writing routine. Her current writing project, an article about mantras for Yoga Journal, adds plenty of self-deprecating humor to the book, as she comes up with mantras and tries them out with different situations and different people, only to wonder at the end if the whole search for a personal mantra is pointless, since, as she says in my favorite line (which might become my own personal mantra), “No one else’s behavior makes any sense.”
Sarah is a determined woman who seems secure in her own skin and—this is an important theme in the book—very comfortable with her bisexuality. So comfortable is she with herself that she brings along an ex-lover to keep her company. She says of the flirtatious sidekick Alex, “If your ex-lovers don’t become your friends, you’re dancing on a dark stage.”
Alex is the woman who prods and encourages as Sarah ping-pongs among three impulses and expectations that Pharos throws at her: there’s her own writing to get done, and in her first week a local doctor requests that she take over directing the yearly production by the Pharos Players, an ever-shifting cast of fishermen, teachers, bakers, and the swaggering sheriff. As Sarah had co-partnered a West End theater company back in London, her experience is invaluable.
For reasons unknown even to herself, she says yes, and finds herself producing Shakespeare’s Tempest, an ambitious project when she is short of people who can act and has to keep both the sheriff and the local baker happy. It’s an increasingly funny situation, with characters who can make you laugh out loud and buffets of food that make you hungry.
Thrown into the mix is the unexpected arrival of Monika, a gorgeous artist who has her eye on Sarah. Suddenly unsure of herself, her future, and her capacity to love, Sarah is drawn to Monika but wary of what level of commitment is being asked of her.
The personal dramas combine to make a tight, compact story set on a tight, compact island. Although, being a travel writer and reader, I might have asked for a slightly richer sense of place, the descriptions of Pharos and its people fit right in with the style of the book and the story. The reader walks away with a head full of cafés serving surprisingly bad food, the shop where it takes all day to make a phone call (made even more tentative by the fact that the fish sometimes nibble the underwater line and break the connection), the cleaning lady who is at war with the pet turtle, and a land of sparkling waters and empty beaches populated by fishermen at odds with the local taxi drivers. Not to mention wondering how the sheriff’s missing Volvo eventually ended up in the sea.
Bonfigli writes in an oblique style that is very difficult to get right—tons of dialogue not always couched within the physicality of a scene, the dialogue full of references by characters that the reader sometimes has to think about for a moment to understand. Fortunately, it seems to be a style she is comfortable with, and she does it well. Although it’s not a style I usually find myself liking, I was increasingly drawn in by the strength of the story and the characters, and enjoying the spare, sharp dialogue.
Café Tempest is a fun, engrossing read, unflinching in its solid writing and depictions of a tight-knit and sometimes ridiculous Greek community. It’s been called an “original, seductive, witty tale of one magical summer,” and I frankly couldn’t say less.
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