Toward the end of Shirley Hazzard’s first novel, “The Evening of the Holiday” (1966), a young woman and a man twice her age sit in a parked car in Tuscany, near the ruins of a villa. Sophie is from England, in Italy on holiday. Tancredi is a Sicilian architect who is separated from his wife. They have spent the summer in a stately courtship, and Sophie has mostly managed to not think explicitly about its end. But the time has come for her to return home. There is no immediate obligation calling her back, but she is determined to go.
Sophie struggles against their claustrophobic misery. As her mind gyres outward (“All around them, across the countryside, men and women went about their work or sat down to their lunch, talked and laughed—or wept, as they wept now”), she tries to “fit this love into some immense, annihilating context of human experience, assailing it with her sense of proportion.” Tancredi, wryly credited with being the one “who knew more about proportion,” lifts his head. “What could be worse than this?” he asks Sophie. “What could be worse?” The chapter ends soon afterward, and the next one opens half a year later, during a winter of record-breaking freezes and deaths.