I recently picked up a novel by an author who seems to set some of her stories in Italy. This one was set in Rome – my city. It had a gorgeous cover, and I’d never read any of her work before, so I picked it up.
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy anything about the book: the plot, the characters, and the writing style were all unappealing to me, but what drove me completely crazy was the haphazard ‘research’ that went into this book.
And, since it was published by a major publishing house, it begged the question: Why didn’t any of the editors catch the sheer quantity of errors?
After all, the novel was set in Rome, not Pyongyang. A few tourists do actually pass through here and have some idea of what the city is like: absolutely none proofed this book?
Before I sound unreasonable, all authors make some mistakes. I read an excellent book by an Irish author where her American characters living in America sounded suspiciously Irish. Fancy a beer, anyone? I read a book where a Swiss character claims that one of the official languages spoken in one area of Switzerland is English. I read an Italian author with a story partially set in New York who seemed to have some orientation problems in the Big Apple. One story set in Spain had a character often calling the US and mixing up time zones (having the US east coast six hours ahead of Central European Time, rather than behind). In these cases, the stories were strong enough that I could ignore these little slips, and otherwise the research seemed pretty solid.
But when you fill a book with so-called descriptions of a real place, I think you should make some effort to ensure they somewhat hit the mark.
This novel filled Rome with yellow taxi cabs, bike messengers, and hot pretzel vendors on each corner. Italian women sold bunches of daisies on the Spanish steps. None of those things exist in Rome. Italians went around inexplicably addressing women as ‘signorita‘ (apparently a mix of the Spanish señorita and the Italian signorina).
The main character goes to one part of the city and admires views of monuments that are in an entirely other section of the city. One character decided to have an early morning walk up and down the steps outside the Colosseum (none exist). A Roman restaurant boasts window views of gardens in different sections of the city – the New York equivalent might be a restaurant with spectacular views both over Central Park and Prospect Park. Pretty cool, huh?
Characters are constantly eating baguettes in restaurants (in almost two decades in Rome I’m not sure I’ve even seen baguettes in Roman restaurants) and dipping them in bowls of olive oil à la Olive Garden. The food is all wrong, the wine is all wrong.
Okay, even if the writing had been stronger, this probably still would have annoyed me.
What do you think, readers (and writers)? Do these slips bother you if they become overwhelming? Or are you able to overlook them? Have you read stories where culture and setting are completely off, but you still love the story?