VID HELWIG'S ninth novel is rather a melodramatic affair. That is not too surprising, since most of it revolves around the world of Italian opera, where melodrama is inhaled with the air. Unfortunately, A Postcard from Rome lacks any of the majestic sweep and larger than life grandeur of grand opera. More often than not, its brand of opera tends more towards the soap variety.
The novel opens with a performance in Rome of Puccini's romantic opera Tosca, the first night of a new production. Partway through the opening act the soprano singing the role of Tosca becomes confused, loses her place, then suddenly bolts from the stage.
We learn that the soprano, a Canadian long resident in Italy named Edith Fulton, is unable to go on because she is distraught over a strange letter that she has just received. It is from her father, supposedly killed in the Second World War, but now revealed to be alive and well, or at least reasonably so, and living in Rome. Ralph Fulton, it appears, now wants to see his only child once again before he dies.
After this operatic beginning the novel dissolves into a series of flashbacks. We cut from scenes of the middle aged Edith contemplating the wreckage of her career, and debating whether she wants to see her oncerevered father again after more than 40 years, to scenes of her childhood and early career.
In flashback we also follow Ralph off to war where his senses, and ours, are barraged by all the usual horrors. Ralph eventually snaps and deserts his unit and is given up for dead. But Ralph, although he is not dead, never really comes alive as a character. His war experiences do not have the immediacy of reality about them, and his passive revulsion at the horrors of war does not set him off as a definite character or one we can care about. By far the more compelling story is the one about Edith. She grows up fatherless, but with a domineering mother and the love and concern of a neighbour, Violet, a woman of ambiguous sexuality who eventually leaves Edith enough money for her to go to Italy to pursue her operatic career.
There are echoes of Margaret Laurence in much of the story of Edith's life. An affair with her history teacher, a substitute father figure, leaves her pregnant (after their first and only sexual encounter, something that happens with more frequency in soap opera than in reality), and she flees her small Ontario home town for Toronto, where she gives her baby up for adoption.
In Toronto she falls for a wealthy young man, but once she sees that he wants her to turn into a version of his mother she drops him. Providentially, Violet dies at this juncture and Edith flees again, this time to Italy, not only the home of grand opera but also the place where her father died, supposedly, all those years ago. In the end, of course, there is a reconciliation, not only between Ralph and Edith, but also with their pasts and their true selves, symbolized by their trip to Canada together for Edith's triumphant return to the stage.
A large part of the problem with the novel is that the characters are all much given to grand, sudden, almost operatic gestures, with little emotional motivation and little in their humdrum personalities to justify them. Edith sees her teacher/ lover playing Napoleon with his toy soldiers and dashes off to Toronto. Edith's wealthy boyfriend criticizes her for singing too loud in church and, whoosh, she's off to Italy. You can hear the heavy thud of the curtain falling as they hastily begin to rearrange the sets.
When we finally meet the aged Ralph in the flesh, he turns out not to have much of an explanation for his 40 year absence. He did not go home to his wife simply because he didn't really like her all that much, but he knew that if he did return he would stay with her forever. "I just expected too much" is his only excuse. Well, so did 1, and his long awaited reappearance is a definite anticlimax.