Europe On The Cheap? Voila: A Grand Literary Tour

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"Three Books ..." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

Some friends of mine recently did an experiment while traveling through Europe. In an effort to gauge the value of the dollar, they visited a McDonald's in every country to compare the prices. The cost of a Big Mac in Norway? Almost eight bucks.

Marc Acito is the author of Attack of the Theater People.

Between that and the price of airfare, I won't be taking the Grand Tour any time soon. But I can still go abroad this summer. All I need to do is crack open one of the following three books.

'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'

'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos, paperback, 165 pages

Any book that was made into a musical with Marilyn Monroe is bound to be good company. In fact, Edith Wharton — who wasn't exactly a laugh riot — called Anita Loos' hilarious 1925 tale, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, "the great American novel."

The pleasure of this trip isn't just the vicarious enjoyment of a trans-Atlantic crossing on an ocean liner; it's the journey back in time accompanied by flappers, bootleggers and a loveable dimwit named Lorelei Lee, the original dumb blonde who refers to herself as "a girl like I" and, when inquiring about the exchange rate of francs, asks how much it is "in money." Lorelei may be a ruthlessly ambitious gold digger, but she's also a lot of fun: "I finally got tired and left the party last night and went to bed," she says, "because I always seem to lose interest in a party after a few days."

'The Talented Mr. Ripley'

'The Talented Mr. Ripley'
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, paperback, 288 pages

One of the greatest pleasures of reading is the chance to spend time with people I would otherwise find morally repugnant, and the hero of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley certainly fits the bill. Like Lorelei, Tom Ripley is a social climber so determined to live the European high life he doesn't marry a millionaire, he murders one. (Actually two — and three in the movie — but who's counting?)

The brilliance of Highsmith's writing is that she makes her victims' "dolce vita" Mediterranean lifestyle so enticing that you actually root for Ripley to get away with it. Halfway through the book, I found myself thinking, "Hey, I'm entitled to spend my days lounging around cafes in sunny piazzas. Maybe I should consider stalking George Clooney at his home on Lake Como. And then do him in."

'A Room With A View'

'A Room With A View'
A Room With A View, E.M. Forster, paperback, 240 pages

For those readers who'd rather not take a literary excursion with a sociopath, consider traveling to Italy with the respectable people in E.M. Forster's A Room With A View. Of course, they're too respectable, which is the whole point of the book. Lucy Honeychurch is a proper Edwardian Englishwoman who only expresses her true nature when she sits down at the piano. "If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting," observes her rector. And eventually Lucy does get her metaphorical room with a view by succumbing to the carnal sensuality that Italy seems to awaken in repressed English people.

Okay, I know — repressed English people losing their inhibitions is totally a cliche — but it's a cliche I love.

Some would argue that reading about travel is no substitute for the real thing. But, like my friends who just returned from Europe, I, too, have done a little experiment. After analyzing my bedtime reading — fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, magazines — I've discovered that I always sleep better after having read fiction. I think it's because the make-believe world acts as a transition between the waking life and the stuff of dreams, a way station on a journey into the imagination — and that's a vacation we can all afford.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

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