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Cafe Tempest

August 18, 2009

Cafe Tempest by Barbara Bonfigli
published by Tell Me Press June 15, 2009

As a wannabe traveler, I often seek books that let me vicariously experience other places and cultures. In her fictional travel memoir, Cafe Tempest: Adventures on a Small Greek Island, Barbara Bonfigli takes readers to Pharos.

The novel is told from the point of view of Sarah, a 30-something American theatrical producer and freelance writer who has been living in London. She travels to Pharos with a female friend, Alex, who is also a former lover. Between working on an article on mantras, Sarah swims, boats, and explores the island on her motorbike, which she has dubbed Ernie Banks.

Soon she’s directing a play — Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” no less — and she’s immersed in rehearsals, dinners, and day-to-day dramas with the rather quirky local folk. She also falls in love with a beautiful Swedish woman, an artist, even as she feels drawn to the man who is the local doctor. The author has said that this openness to love with both genders — “you love who you love” — is the most important theme in the book.

The best part of this novel, for me, blossomed from the author’s keen eye for detail. Her descriptions of the island recreated sights, sounds, smells and sensations that took me along as a vicarious tourist. Scenes like this were woven throughout the book:

We set off under a black sky pricked with stars. The streets are narrow, lit by a half-moon falling on high whitewashed walls. As we climb out of the port to Kastro they taper to twisting passages no wider than Stavros’s cart. We fall in behind, silent, listening to the dogs calling, the night birds, the tinny carillon of goat bells in the valley. I’m thrilled by the stillness, the sharp nightlines, the soft jasmine air. Below us the sea suddenly appears, a skein of rough silk.

and

In Pharos, where the silence caresses you and ice trays are still being test-marketed, my routine is dead easy…Since our arrival almost three weeks ago the sun has burned off any clouds by nine, the wind has vanished, and from the top of this mountain I watch a silent parade of small fishing boats drawing oily streaks on the distant water.

and

The small bay is home to a galaxy of tiny fish. Whoever painted them had a dazzling palate and a limitless imagination. I glide around with snorkel and mask watching the action below. The sun sends fingerlings of white light through the glassy surface to the rippled sandy seabed. Fat yellow-and-black angel fish poke their snouts against little rocks speckled with plankton. Sleek blue-and-red striped models with green circles on their bellies slide between waving braids of sea grass. Swimming silently above them, I spot an iridescent blue cipoura and follow it till it outruns me. When I turn my head to the side I discover that I’m surrounded by silver small fry skimming just below the surface, checking me out. I reach out my hands and they nibble at my toes.

The author also has an edgy wit, and at times, the book is laugh-out loud funny. I thoroughly enjoyed lines like this:

In my opinion they should let people light up and drink from takeoff to landing. All this pent up fear and deprivation would certainly mess up an orderly ditching at sea.

And this:

People with TVs, beach umbrellas, inflatable boats, whole hams are streaming around us…”But if they need all that stuff…,” she says, eyeing our relatively modest load.
“They don’t. But they read Homer, and according to The Odyssey the islands are rocky wastelands.”
“You mean the Homer who’s been dead a thousand years?”
“He’s still in print, though.” I say this with a touch of envy that Alex gracefully ignores

In my opinion, the books greatest strengths were the wealth of beautifully crafted, evocative detail and the author’s sense of humor, which had me smiling throughout the book. The weakest point, to me, was character development. I kept waiting to get beneath Sarah’s cleverness and edgy wit and really get to know her, along with Alex and several residents of Pharos, but that never happened. That would have enriched the book for me and made the book’s theme, “you love who you love,” more compelling.

On the other hand, I think the focal character in this book was really the setting, and I did get a sense of Pharos, not only the scenery but the colorful character of the place. On that level, it definitely worked.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy travel with rich descriptions and local color. Food lovers will also be glad to know there are authentic Greek recipes at the back, which look terrific. Baklava, zucchini fritters, stuffed grape leaves, and more. It makes me want to throw a party … is anyone game? 🙂

I received a review copy of Cafe Tempest as part of Barbara’s virtual book tour. You can order the book directly from Tell Me Press or from Amazon.

Rating:

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