Europe On The Cheap? Voila: A Grand Literary Tour A dollar won't buy you much in Europe these days. But three books set on the continent offer a full immersion in "la dolce vita" — at minimal cost.


Europe On The Cheap? Voila: A Grand Literary Tour

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Now, to Three Books. That's our series in which writers recommend books on a single theme.

Marc Acito is thinking about vacations - grand tours to be exact. He is not taking his own trip to Europe this summer, but he has three suggestions for traveling there via literature.

MARC ACITO (Author, "Attack of the Theater People"): 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.

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 "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" - the hilarious 1925 novel by Anita Loos because any book that was made into a musical with Marilyn Monroe is bound to be good company.

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. But she's so much 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.

Lorelei may be a ruthlessly ambitious gold-digger, but one of the great joys of reading is the chance to spend time with people you would otherwise find morally repugnant. For instance, the hero of Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

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' la dolce vita Mediterranean lifestyle so enticing, you actually root for Ripley to get away with it. I mean, halfway through the book, I found myself thinking, hey, I'm entitled to spend my day lounging around cafes in sunny piazzas. Maybe I should go to Lake Como and become best friends with George Clooney, and then do him in.

I realize that not everyone wants to take a literary excursion with a sociopath, but you can travel to Italy with 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 Ms. 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.

Of course, 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 much-needed vacation we all can afford.

SIEGEL: Writer Marc Acito is the author of "Attack of the Theater People." He was recommending "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" by Anita Loos, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" by Patricia Highsmith, and "A Room with a View" by E.M. Forster. You can find more suggestions from our Three Books series at

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