At one of the first public conversations I had about What Is Missing, my novel, a young member of the audience asked me how crucial setting was to finding my way into a book. It was a little disconcerting, because I felt so seen into—it was as if he’d figured out my trick! In The Mighty Franks, my memoir, I started with the rooms and houses that captivated and obsessed (and, to be candid, sometimes trapped) me in my childhood, and I wrote my way free of them. In What Is Missing I thought of the settings differently, as a way to contain and approach the characters; some of the more important places felt almost like characters in their own right. Central among them were, in Florence, a pensione, several museums, and a food market. In New York three apartments loomed large, one on the Upper East Side, grand, lugubrious, and claustrophobic; another nearby, more moderate but neglected and haunted by a marriage gone sour and family secrets held back; and a third, a small refuge in a walk-up downtown. Finally, back to Italy for the epilogue, which unfolds on the beautiful but, for one character anyway, disturbing Ligurian coast.
In Italy last summer I carried a disposable camera with me with the idea of trying to capture what moved or intrigued me about the actual settings that inspired the scenes that played out in them. I don’t offer them as illustrations so much as suggestions or companions. Even actual places you have to make up again for yourself, to render them in a convincing way. Anyway here they are.
Two of the three main characters in the novel, Andrew and Costanza, meet in Florence in a pensione on the upper floors of a sixteenth-century palazzo where windows look down onto the street. Andrew spends a lot of time photographing what he sees from these windows. He does a better job of it I’m sure.
The pensione has a terrace that looks over nearby rooftops. For a city that sits in a bowl, like Florence, it’s important to change your perspective, though I think most cities live on different levels at once.
What on earth? All I can say is that the Florentines like to hunt, and eat, cinghiali—wild boar. This furry little fellow clarifies what meat you’re purchasing, in case you’re confused.
Andrew’s father Henry, the third point on the triangle, runs (in truth: hurls) into Costanza here. I’ve always been captivated by the monks’ cells with their individual frescoes by Fra Angelico (and his helpers). Saul Bellow once said that when he had something a character needed, he gave it to him. I shared with Andrew, at certain moments, a yearning to withdraw into small cloistered spaces like these.
Brunelleschi’s great church with its unfinished façade. In a city that dizzies you with all its ornament, plain surfaces can come as a relief.
A Venetian chandelier in Florence: some interesting things happen under the glow of this slightly ridiculous spun-sugar light, a version of which to my mind hangs in the sitting room of the pensione where the action starts.
Iconic, sure. My favorite part is the “secret” corridor Vasari built to connect the Uffizi with the Pitti Palace across the Arno. Royal children used to play ball up there on rainy days, or so it’s said.
Switching to Liguria now. This water is important to Costanza. She grew up looking at it, swimming in it, escaping to it.
Although only the epilogue takes place in Liguria, the region threads through the book, because it’s where Costanza is from, and I believe that the places people come from stay with them for the rest of their lives. Liguria can be a difficult part of Italy to get to know and make friends with, and it can produce difficult figures, like Costanza’s mother. I, personally, like the way so many local things tell a story, like these pebbles, which have been taken from the beach to pave (given the date, probably re-pave) a small piazza in front of the church of San Nicolò.
Maria Rosaria, Costanza’s mother, makes reference to a house like this, which stands along one of the paths that lead up into the hills. Lots of paths weave through lots of hills in Liguria, and people were once very enterprising about building refuges in them.
Like most regions of Italy, Liguria has its own special cuisine, which town by town is divided up into fractal-like sub-specialties. Recco, near where Costanza grew up, is famous for its focaccia col formaggio, which was invented there. These two sheets of thin dough sandwiching a melted local cheese is made in, probably, two dozen different bakeries in town, and everyone has his or her favorite. Mine is Moltedo (the one under the bridge; there are two), which is run like a small theater. This is Ornella, one of the most dramatic of the dramatis personae on stage.
And this is the focaccia, which is best eaten when it first comes out of the oven.
I’ll admit to borrowing this bench pretty much from life, though I’ve rejiggered the geography some. The novel winds down on this spot.
“The water had lapped against these rocks long before Henry came along to watch it, and it would go on lapping against them, shaping and reshaping them, after he went away again and long after that, when he was no more”—indeed.
On the first Sunday in August, Camogli, the town just next to Recco, celebrates the Madonna del Mare, the Madonna of the Sea who protects all sailors. By day, a procession of boats sails from Camogli to Punta Chiappa; at sunset thousands of candles are lit and cast upon the water. They drift off into the horizon until they burn themselves out, or sink out of view.
Michael Frank is the author of The Mighty Franks, the winner of the 2018 Jewish Quarterly–Wingate Prize and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. His essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Slate, The Yale Review, Salmagundi, and Tablet, among other publications. He lives with his family in New York City and Liguria, Italy.