Time for another book review. This review will be an unusual one for me, because I very rarely read novels anymore. My time as an English major kind of killed my once robust love for reading fiction; I’d rather read biographies, memoirs, or other books based in truth, or at least one person’s version of it. I’ve actually been thinking of reading Kathryn Walker’s debut novel since it was first published, back in August 2008. At that time, I was living in Germany for the first time, and I read People Magazine on a regular basis, instead of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Someone reviewed Walker’s novel. I sat up and took notice, because Kathryn Walker happens to be singer-songwriter James Taylor’s second ex wife. She’s also an actress, and had been in the quirky 1981 film, Neighbors, which also starred John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Cathy Moriarty. I remembered that film and, in fact, had recently purchased and viewed the film on DVD.
I held off on buying Walker’s book for eleven years. Even though I was very curious about the comments the People Magazine reviewer had made about Walker’s “thinly veiled” comments about James Taylor through one of the characters, I was put off by the negative reviews left by regular readers. I also don’t like reading novels that much, and didn’t want to wait for the book to get to me. Back in 2008, I didn’t have a Kindle or an iPad. 😉
I can see by Amazon.com, I finally downloaded Walker’s debut novel in December 2019. I just now read it, and that was probably because Bill and I saw James Taylor perform last month in Frankfurt. We had second row seats, and I was reminded yet again how fascinating I find James Taylor. I had already read Carly Simon’s book, Boys in the Trees: A Memoir, which contained a lot of comments about James– kind ones about his immense talent, as well as negative ones about his drug addiction, alleged philandering, and lack of commitment to being a husband and father to their two children together, Sally and Ben.
Kathryn Walker has always seemed a lot more mysterious to me than Carly Simon is. I’d only seen her act in Neighbors, although I know she’s been a lot of stage productions and on television shows. About 20 years ago, I read the exhaustive book, Long Ago and Far Away: James Taylor His Life and Music by the late Timothy White. It was an extremely comprehensive read, yet I don’t remember too much coverage of James’s years with Kathryn Walker. I remember a single photo of her in that book, and a few comments about how she was there to help him as he got sober. Other than that, Kathryn Walker has always seemed to me like a blip on James Taylor’s history. And while I know not everyone likes James Taylor’s music or who he is as a person, I still remain fascinated by him and the rest of his family. So, after seeing him perform last month for the fourth time in my life, I decided I’d finally read Kathryn Walker’s “thinly veiled” novel about her time with a debatable “rock star”– James Taylor.
Now… enough of my personal bullshit, and on to my review of the book…
First, a brief synopsis…
Cornelia “Nel” Everett is a young and bored woman, unhappily married to a brilliant, piano playing, self-absorbed rock star named Antony Casson. Antony and Nel have been on his European tour. She always goes with him on his tours, and she’s always bored and lonely, as each day is in a new city, where Antony’s time is consumed by sound checks and performances. At the beginning of the story, they had been married for eight years, and Nel is feeling restless, irritable, and useless.
On the Italian leg of Antony’s tour, they land in Venice, where Antony performs and Nel waits for him, never taking the time to explore the amazing places to where Antony’s work takes them. Nel is dissatisfied and longs for something more. So, after an argument with Antony, she impulsively decides to get off the train that would take them to Verona, the next city on his tour. He doesn’t see her leave, because he’s always exhausted by his work. She’s not exhausted, because she has nothing to do.
Standing on the platform, watching the train pull away, Nel feels a surge of nerves. She doesn’t speak Italian and isn’t used to traveling alone. Somehow, she still manages to make it to The Gritti Palace, one of Venice’s best known and most expensive hotels. She asks for a room, and is told that the hotel only has a tiny one in an area where renovations are ongoing. She accepts the room, sight unseen. It’s tiny, dark, and has a narrow bed. But the friendly receptionist promises that he might be able to move her the next day. Nel is just grateful for the kindness, since she’s truly in unexplored territory. She hasn’t told Antony where she is, and she has no solid plans… but this impromptu stopover in Venice will turn out to be an adventure that completely changes the course of her life forever.
The next day, Nel takes a walk, where she begins to see Venice for the first time. While walking, she runs into a pack of aggressive boys, torturing a tiny dog. Consumed with compassion for the little Chihuahua, Nel forcefully tells the boys to beat it, and rescues the grateful little canine. Completely ignoring the logistics of adopting a pet in Europe when one lives in the United States, Nel decides to keep the dog. She sneaks him into the hotel, noticing that he was obviously someone’s pet. But he lacks a collar, so she gives him a name, and starts trying to figure out how to get him into her life.
Nel discovers that one of the best ways to meet Italians is to have a dog… and just after she’s bought him a bespoke collar and is getting used to the idea of having him, when she hears the frantic shots of a man. Somehow, he’s spotted her with his employer’s lost dog, Leo… and just like Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz, Nel and Giacomo (as she calls him at first) are spirited into a mysterious palazzo owned by an elderly Venetian woman named Lucy. And Lucy is so grateful to Nel for rescuing her dog that she invites her to stay. It’s a decision that inevitably leads Nel away from her life as a rock star’s wife and into the exhilarating energy of living her own life. Nel finds herself in an exciting project that marries art, history, and architecture in an enchanting city, where life is different and interesting. Nel gives up waiting around in boring hotel rooms and finds new life, engaging with vibrant new friends and finding love.
I’m of a mixed mind about A Stopover in Venice. First off, I will state that although there is a disclaimer at the end of this book, assuring readers that this book is entirely a work of a fiction dreamed up by Kathryn Walker, it’s pretty obvious that she was heavily influenced by her life with James Taylor. If you know anything about James Taylor’s history, you will easily see the similarities, with some changes made.
For instance, Walker gives her “rock star” character a somewhat exotic name, but writes that he goes by “Antony”, never Tony. I can’t imagine anyone calling James Taylor “Jim”, although I did read that he was known as “Jamie” when he was a lad. Instead of making him a guitar player with dark hair and blue eyes, she makes him a piano player with brown eyes and blond hair. Instead of having a father who is a famous doctor, as James did, Antony’s father is a famous civil rights lawyer. And instead of having an ex wife who is a singer-songwriter like James’s first ex, Carly Simon, Antony’s ex is named “Natalie” and is an eccentric actress. They have one child– a daughter named Liddie– instead of the two children James and Carly had together.
But then, as the story progresses, it’s clear that Kathryn Walker’s writing was informed by real life. She mentions how “Natalie” is always calling Antony, claiming that he neglects their daughter, adding a snarky aside that really, it’s Natalie who is feeling neglected. Carly Simon has stated that she’s not allowed to have James Taylor’s phone number, nor will he come anywhere near the property they bought together in the 1970s, where Carly still lives, even though their son Ben also has a house nearby. It’s my guess that Carly probably did cause some drama, as the first ex wife.
Kathryn Walker also famously had a long relationship with Douglas Kenney, a brilliant comedy writer and co-founder of National Lampoon. Kenney was an up and coming star when he tragically and suddenly died in a freak accident in Hawaii. This incident is also vaguely referred to in A Stopover in Venice, as Nel mentions a former lover named Nils who seemed to be a much better match for her. As Kenney also did, Nils died suddenly, before he and Nel could make their relationship official. Nel mentions how she was never able to give Antony a child, as Natalie had. Likewise, Kathryn Walker and James Taylor never had children in real life.
The grief of Kenney’s death and Taylor’s split from Simon, along with the fact that they knew some of the same people, like John Belushi, seemed to bring Walker and Taylor together. Under normal circumstances, they probably wouldn’t have ever married, but they found each other at a time when both were in some trouble. Likewise, it sounds like Nel and Antony found each other in a similar way. Coincidentally enough, IMDB tells me that tomorrow would have been Walker’s and Taylor’s 37th wedding anniversary, had they not split up in 1995.
Frequently in this book, Walker makes Antony out to be a self-centered narcissist. Nel is a wine loving, intellectual, curious, romantic woman who wants to go out and enjoy the fruits of her husband’s successes, preferably with him. But Antony is obsessed with his craft. He loves to tour. I think if we remember James Taylor’s 1981 album, Dad Loves His Work (not one of my favorite JT albums), a thinly veiled message to Carly Simon, who had famously issued an ultimatum that James needed to settle down and be more present in his family’s life, we can see that Kathryn Walker probably felt similarly neglected by James. In fact, through her novel, I get the idea that Kathryn Walker might have felt a strange mixture of being needed and ignored. She was needed because she was in his inner circle and trusted, yet I get the sense that any warm body could have done what she was doing. Antony didn’t want to be alone, but he didn’t want to be with someone he couldn’t trust. But being a “warm body” is not enough to make a successful marriage, and through Nel, we get the sense that it was a thankless task.
Personally, I don’t think James Taylor is a narcissist, in the sense that I don’t think he has a personality disorder, or anything like that. I think he has some narcissistic traits, as many famous rock star (and politician) types do. He’s also an addict, who was raised by an addict, in a very demanding and visible job. He’s a product of divorce, raised by a mother who wasn’t happy in her marriage, or where her husband’s work had taken her. Trudy Taylor famously hated living in North Carolina, where Isaac Taylor was from, and where he was dean of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s medical school (which bears his name). If you listen to James Taylor’s audio book, Break Shot: My First 21 Years, you can hear him talk about his parents’ relationship, and how his father could be very cutting and kind of mean. And he took off on long trips, leaving his wife and children behind, in a place his wife hated. Isaac Taylor spent a long time working in Antarctica and came home with a very serious drinking problem. It’s no secret that James and his siblings have all struggled with mental health and addiction issues, too. His oldest brother, Alex, died on James’s 48th birthday in 1993, having had a heart attack after drinking a fifth of vodka by himself. All of these events would have a significant effect on a person– maybe stunt them emotionally or enhance existing character flaws.
I think, in many ways, James Taylor has been through a lot of shit. In spite of his immense gifts as a musician, when it comes down to it, he’s someone who has been through some tragic losses, and suffered from mental health and addiction issues. So even though he’s a very talented and successful star, he could never be the man Kathryn Walker obviously needed… and the character, Antony, could not be who Nel needed. They were simply incompatible, and they needed to divorce, just as James and Kathryn eventually did. I think they’re both better off for having done that. Even if James Taylor had had the most stable, loving, and normal home life ever, I don’t think he and Kathryn Walker would have been a love match. They don’t seem to have much in common, other than knowing some of the same people, being a bit codependent, and having been through personal crises at about the same time.
I believe Walker also makes a thinly veiled mention of James’s third wife, Caroline “Kim” Smedvig, who now goes by Kim Taylor. In the book, she’s referred to as Nicola, a PR professional who speaks several languages and had worked with classical musicians. Kim Taylor worked for the Boston Pops for years, and was previously married to Rolf Thorstein Smedvig, a classical musician. James and Kim met in 1993, and started dating after he and Kathryn became estranged. They married in 2001, are parents to twin sons, Henry and Rufus, and seem very happy together. As the book was ending, Walker’s character, Nicola, is picking up “Liddie”, and meeting Antony in France, a country he loves. She never outright says it, but it’s kind of implied that Antony and Nicola are having an affair. I don’t know if that’s how it happened in real life, especially since “Liddie” (Sally Taylor) would have been an adult in 1993 (although Ben Taylor was still a teenager), but that’s how it seems in Walker’s fictionalized account.
Allergic to quotation marks?
For some reason, Kathryn Walker doesn’t use quotation marks in her dialogues. I don’t know why. Most of the time, it wasn’t difficult for me to ascertain who was saying what, but there were a couple of times when it was a bit confusing to figure out the conversations between characters. I think some other readers found this little quirk annoying.
The rest of the story?
Believe it or not, this book mostly isn’t just about Kathryn Walker’s relationship with James Taylor. I’d say that part only makes up about a quarter of the book. The bulk of the novel is about Nel’s adventure in Venice, staying in a former convent turned palazzo, owned by a lonely, wealthy, elderly signora where she helps a British Italian man uncover a mysterious fresco.
However, I think a lot of people, like me, picked up this book because we were interested in her relationship with JT. And I do think she delivers, albeit in a way that probably keeps her as safe as possible from litigation. It does help to know something about James Taylor and his family if you want to get the nuances. On the other hand, some people will read A Stopover in Venice for other reasons. One person wrote that she’d read it because she and Walker had both graduated from Wells College, and she was curious. I seem to recall that particular reviewer hadn’t liked the book.
I think Kathryn Walker writes well, and I appreciated some of the vivid imagery she creates with her prose. The plot itself is kind of engaging, especially if you’ve ever been to Venice, which I have on two occasions. I actually found myself looking up the Gritti Palace Hotel to see if Bill and I could afford to go there, too. It would be quite expensive to do that, but hell, we don’t have kids in college or a mortgage. The story is kind of implausible, though… one has to suspend disbelief as to how Nel finds herself making friends so quickly with native Venetians, all because she rescued a dog from a pack of hellion kids in a strange city. Many people will find that aspect of the book easy to ignore and will enjoy it, anyway. Others, like me, will be nagged by questions as to how all of this came together in such a fantastic and ridiculous way, even if I was very intrigued by her fictionalized insights about life as the wife of a rock star. I happen to know, having actually befriended the wife of a major rock star musician myself, that the lifestyle isn’t without its challenges.
I’m definitely not sorry I read A Stopover in Venice. Maybe, thanks to this book, Bill and I will venture there again in 2023, ten years after our last visit. We have more money now, so we can stay somewhere besides the Hilton for a night (although they gave us an AMAZING upgraded room that rents for 520 euros a night– see here for my blog photos). My first time in Venice, I stayed in a convent hostel that locked visitors out all day, so the Hilton was an improvement. I did find Walker’s writing inspiring enough that I would plan a trip because of it, although I doubt I’ll find an elderly signora with a palazzo with which I can bond over dogs and old frescoes.
On the other hand, I’m glad I’m finished with the book. I really do prefer non-fiction. And I’m glad that my curiosity is finally satisfied. If you like novels, and are curious about actresses who used to be married to rock stars and became novelists, A Stopover in Venice might be a good read for you, too.
As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.