Novelist Lee, Playing with Three 'Lost Hearts' Andrea Lee's latest novel, Lost Hearts in Italy, builds on the classic love triangle. Eighteen years after the affair began, Mira, Nick and Zenin the billionaire are still trying to put their lives back together. Lee tells Liane Hansen about the book.
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Novelist Lee, Playing with Three 'Lost Hearts'

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Novelist Lee, Playing with Three 'Lost Hearts'

Novelist Lee, Playing with Three 'Lost Hearts'

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In Andrea Lee's latest novel, Lost Hearts in Italy, she builds on the classic love triangle. Mira marries Nick in a picturesque wedding at their alma mater. The young couple heads to Italy to start their new life together, but Mira meets Zenin, an Italian billionaire. He edges into her life, and the life she's created with Nick, and Mira finds herself in the throes of an intense affair. Eighteen years later, Mira, Zenin and Nick are still trying to put their lives back together.

Andrea Lee, like her main character, lives in Italy, but she's in New York for a visit and joins us from our bureau there. It's a pleasure to talk to you again.

Ms. ANDREA LEE (Author, Lost Hearts in Italy): Well, I'm really glad to be here. I love being in New York and I like talking to you again.

HANSEN: It's been a long time. The first time we had a conversation was for your first novel, Russian Journal. You were writing about a young woman, an aspiring writer of mixed race, middle class roots, living temporarily in Moscow when it was the capital of the Soviet Union. So this is, I think, the '80s.

The new book, you write in the voice of a mature woman, professional success, a college-aged child, past and present husbands, who lived in Rome, still lives in Italy. Now, is Mira sort of a second stage in a character you developed 20 years ago, sort of different settings, but...

Ms. LEE: Yeah, I think that Mira could be seen as, say, Sarah Phillips grown up. I mean, there are a lot of voices in the book. So there's one mature woman's voice and then there's a very young woman's voice too. So - but one of the voices is definitely a mature woman.

HANSEN: To what extent did you draw on your own experiences to understand and communicate both of these women?

Ms. LEE: A lot, a lot, but that's not to say that the book is just roman a clef. No, definitely not. But I drew on emotional experience and emotional maturity, let's say, to - for the second voice, the mature voice.

HANSEN: Of Mira herself.

Ms. LEE: Of Mira, yeah, the grown Mira. Because there's a young Mira, there's the 25-year-old Mira and then there's the older Mira, who's looking back on her love affair, on her first marriage, on her arrival in Europe.

HANSEN: The chapters in Lost Hearts are dated, but the dates are not in chronological order. So were they written in random, as the voices of Mira's, Nick and Zenin?

Ms. LEE: Yeah, it's a complicated book.

HANSEN: It's a novel.

Ms. LEE: Yeah, it's complicated novel - it's hard to write, actually. It's a novel - I think the reason it's written in these short pieces, these short bits, is that I love short stories, basically. And I think I'm a short story writer. So I ended up writing small segments and putting them together almost like a mosaic. It's kind of hard putting it together. It's the most complicated thing I've ever written because they're different voices, they're different times.

The book goes back and forth between the time of the love affair, the time of the early part of the young couple's marriage and then what's going on, say, 18 years later when they've all emerged from this, you know, from this love triangle. So no, it's quite complicated and each piece had to be almost like a little short story.

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

Ms. LEE: Then I got the idea of adding different voices, different witnesses, because it intrigued me that people can see things in so many different ways.

HANSEN: Was it difficult to capture all of the voices? Did they each have a different color index card on your wall...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: keep them all straight like Jacqueline Susann?

Ms. LEE: You sound disorganized. No. No, I wish I could be that organized. No, I'm incredibly disorganized. I had it all organized in my head, and then when I was writing it, it began to get a little bit out of control, even on my computer.

And finally I had to have it all printed out and put them on my floor and kind of put them together almost physically, like a - put the chapters together, say, now wait a minute, we've had enough of this voice, let's now, you know, come in with the voice of Zenin. Okay, enough of him, we have to come in with the voice of Nick. Then we need a contrasting person, a woman. You know, I just tried to arrange it so that it wouldn't be monotonous and that the story would flow.

HANSEN: Even though the chapters are like short stories and some of the paragraphs and small bits are like small essays, you seem to be struggling with the novel form and that you want to write, you know, the great novel.

Ms. LEE: Well, I'm not sure...

HANSEN: Do you?

Ms. LEE: Yeah, no, I don't think I want to write - I would do something a little bit smoother like this, but I don't think I want to write a sustained narrative. That's just not me. I like details and I like quirkiness and I like - oh, I like different, different, different voices.

HANSEN: Mm hmm.

Ms. LEE: So I think I would do something similar from many points of view, but a little bit better than this. I'm happy with this book, really happy, but it was really an experiment for me. So I think now I know a little bit more what I would do.

HANSEN: Andrea Lee's novel, Lost Hearts in Italy, was published by Random House this summer. She spoke to us from NPR's studio in New York. Thanks a lot, Andrea.

Ms. LEE: Thanks a lot, Liane, it was great.

HANSEN: You can hear Andrea Lee reading an excerpt from Lost Hearts in Italy on our Web site,

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