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Praise for Interesting Women

“Eloquent, pinpoint prose… Lee’s writing speaks from the intellect but knows intimately the ways of the heart.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Accomplished… all [stories] are distinguished by lucid sensual language.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Refreshing and amusing… these interesting women are both jaded and triumphant, wearily accustomed not only to defeat, but to prevailing as well.” —Newsday

“Andrea Lee spins savvy stories from around the globe.” —More

“Ms. Lee’s prose is as clear-headed as her characters, who make great leaps between oceans and men only to ‘ponder the wonderful seductiveness of action, of clean defiant acts; and the tedium of consequences.’ ” —The Economist

“The stories are full of tension… [they] provide instant and sophisticated gratification.” —Publishers Weekly

“Lee is at her best detailing encounters between brash New World women and sophisticated Old World men, but she is also good at probing complicated relationships between women.… Lee is a polished writer.” —Library Journal

“Each droll, masterfully crafted, electrifyingly perceptive, and wryly cosmopolitan and epicurean story deftly decodes the tricky dynamics of sexual, racial, and cultural trespass.” —Booklist

“A collective voice of very independent, self-defining, and interesting women who may be ‘far from their own culture, but not out of their depths.’ Their voice and their stories make this a book not to be missed.” —The Bloomsbury Review

“Lee easily enthralls with the smallest description or observation, and her knowledge of this lifestyle is intoxicatingly thorough.… Lee’s pinpoint accuracy for the right word and perfect tone bring a universal truth to these stories.” —Kirkus Reviews

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To Alexandra,

who merits her middle name,

and to Ruggero and Charles,

i miei uomini interessanti.

Pinkerton (con franchezza):

Dovunque al mondo lo Yankee vagabondo si gode e traffica

sprezzando i rischi. Affonda l’ancora alla ventura.

—Luigi Illica, Giuseppe Giacosa, Madama Butterfly

The Birthday Present

A cellular phone is ringing, somewhere in Milan. Ariel knows that much. Or does she? The phone could be trilling its electronic morsel of Mozart or Bacharach in a big vulgar villa with guard dogs and closed-circuit cameras on the bosky shores of Lake Como. Or in an overpriced hotel suite in Portofino. Or why not in the Aeolian Islands, or on Ischia, or Sardinia? It’s late September, and all over the Mediterranean the yachts of politicians and arms manufacturers and pan-Slavic gangsters are still snuggled side by side in the indulgent golden light of harbors where the calendars of the toiling masses mean nothing. The truth is that the phone could be ringing anywhere in the world where there are rich men.

But Ariel prefers to envision Milan, which is the city nearest the Brianza countryside, where she lives with her family in a restored farmhouse. And she tries hard to imagine the tiny phone lying on a table in an apartment not unlike the one she shared fifteen years ago in Washington with a couple of other girls who were seniors at Georgetown. The next step up from a dorm, that is—like a set for a sitcom about young professionals whose sex lives, though kinky, have an endearing adolescent gaucheness. It would be too disturbing to think that she is telephoning a bastion of contemporary Milanese luxury, like the apartments of some of her nouveau-riche friends: gleaming marble, bespoke mosaics, boiserie stripped from defunct châteaux, a dispiriting sense of fresh money spread around like butter on toast.

Hmmm—and if it were a place like that? There would be, she supposes, professional modifications. Mirrors: that went without saying, as did a bed the size of a handball court, with a nutria cover and conveniently installed handcuffs. Perhaps a small dungeon off the dressing room? At any rate, a bathroom with Moroccan hammam fixtures and a bidet made from an antique baptismal font. Acres of closets, with garter belts and crotchless panties folded and stacked with fetishistic perfection. And boxes of specialty condoms, divided, perhaps, by design and flavor. Are they ordered by the gross? From a catalog? But now Ariel retrieves her thoughts, because someone picks up the phone.

“Pronto?” The voice is young and friendly and hasty.

“Is this Beba?” Ariel asks in her correct but heavy Italian, from which she has never attempted to erase the American accent.

“Yes,” says the voice, with a merry air of haste.

“I’m a friend of Flavio Costaldo’s and he told me that you and your friend—your colleague—might be interested in spending an evening with my husband. It’s a birthday present.”

When a marriage lingers at a certain stage—the not uncommon plateau where the two people involved have nothing to say to each other—it is sometimes still possible for them to live well together. To perform generous acts that do not, exactly, signal desperation. Flavio hadn’t meant to inspire action when he suggested that Ariel give her husband, Roberto, “una fanciulla”—a young girl—for his fifty-fifth birthday. He’d meant only to irritate, as usual. Flavio is Roberto’s best friend, a sixty-year-old Calabrian film producer who five or six years ago gave up trying to seduce Ariel, and settled for the alternative intimacy of tormenting her subtly whenever they meet. Ariel is a tall, fresh-faced woman of thirty-seven, an officer’s child who grew up on army bases around the world, and whose classic American beauty has an air of crisp serviceability that—she is well aware—is a major flaw: in airports, she is sometimes accosted by travelers who are convinced that she is there in a professional capacity. She is always patient at parties when the inevitable pedant expounds on how unsuitable it is for a tall, rather slow-moving

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