It’s a scary word, “synopsis”. It sounds like a painful infection ultimately requiring invasive surgery (a “synopsectomy”?). I’ve personally been afflicted by it numerous times over the last four years and am still quite prone to pangs of angst and flare-ups of inadequacy.
The main problem I’ve had with writing (and rewriting) my synopsis is the near-impossible task of summarizing 464 pages into one. I’m a naturally verbose person. In my everyday life, I make a concerted effort to curb this flaw. So when my husband asks, “Babe, did you buy milk?” I try to simply breathe deeply and say, “Yes.” And not, “Yes, at least I think I did. Yeah, yeah, I’ve already put it in the fridge! Oh, what am I saying? Silly me, I’ve just pulled it out. You see, I’m about to make pancakes. Do you want some pancakes? Or did you just want some milk in your tea?”
Also, trying to summarize my cinderblock-sized book feels like trying to sum up a twenty-year relationship. There are all those memories, all those emotions: how could I possibly leave any of them out? In my case, the matter is even more complicated by the fact that my book is about a relationship. And it’s not easy to boil down to one page a love story which feels as intricate and momentous as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
It doesn’t help that advice on how to write a good synopsis reads like a manual on how to set up your DVD player:
Step 1: Start with a “hook”, on the Set-up Menu. Without a hook, this device will not run.
Step 2: Introduce your characters, programming them with their correct motivations, conflicts and goals. For help at any time, press the Help Menu button. (Warning: characters without motivations, conflicts and goals may not appear on your screen.)
Step 3: Proceed to the Chapters Menu. Select body paragraphs to highlight the main points of the story in chronological order. Exceeding the five-selection limit may cause mild electrocution. Press OK.
Step 4: Return to the Chapters Menu. While holding the forward button down with one hand, use the other to arrange each chapter into the desired Action-Reaction-Decision sequence.
For example: ACTION – Tears streaming, the protagonist flushes her beloved goldfish down the toilet. REACTION – Miraculously, the fish swims against the current. DECISION – She makes the heartbreaking decision to reflush.
Failure to follow the Action-Reaction-Decision sequence may result in implosion of the device. When you are done, press OK. Then press 9 (just because).
Step 5: With the big toe of your right foot, press the End button to select your desired crisis and resolution of the story. (Note: endings without a gratifying resolution/reward may invalidate the entire plot.) (Warning: Do not under any circumstances press the Help Menu button during this process; doing so may delete all previous selections.)
Step 6: Return to the Set-up menu, press Cancel, then Reset. Start again from Step 1.
If only it were that easy! I have been through this painful process seven, ten, thirteen times and I have yet to find the Help Menu. Plus, I’m not completely satisfied with my synopsis. It’s still too long, though only by half a page. It’s a bit convoluted. And I feel battered and bruised from writing it. But at least I have a synopsis, one that I’m not too terribly ashamed of anymore.
SPOILER ALERT: Only read the following synopsis if you have previously read my book, or if you have no intention of ever reading my book, or if (like me) you have such a poor memory that you will not remember – by the time my book is finally published – that I spoiled the ending for you.
Lost in the Spanish Quarter, a Neapolitan memoir
by Heddi Rebecca Goodrich
by Heddi Rebecca Goodrich
“A few years back I made the worst mistake of my life,” begins an email from Italy, the veiled apology I’d given up waiting for. Catapulted, for a moment my heart falters, before pulling me back down into the labyrinth known as the Spanish Quarter.
When it all started five years ago, I was a different person. Rebecca I’ll call that inquisitive and wholehearted girl from Washington, D.C., who rooms with her fellow linguistics students in the Quartieri Spagnoli, the darkest ghetto in Italy’s most enigmatic city. Her home since a high school exchange program, Naples fills Rebecca up: she desires nothing more than to wander fearless through that bustling maze, soaking up the patchwork of sounds and smells and glimpsing slivers of the volcano between ancient buildings. Until one night at a party, when a stranger named Elio hands her a mixed tape. The first is a love song.
There’s something about Elio, a geology major from an illiterate farming family, a brilliant and lonesome chain smoker with big dreams. Invited casually into her circle of friends, he appears awestruck by Rebecca’s freedom and travel experience. She is intrigued by his unusual beauty, his lack of pretension, his first clumsy kiss. Falling headlong in love, she moves into Elio’s ghetto apartment, and they make plans to travel the world and one day get married. Like an old lover, Naples begins to feel like a stepping-stone to greater things.
But first she has to meet Elio’s elderly mother, who makes even the chickens run behind the farmhouse in a panic. His mother disapproves. But Rebecca denies defeat, making every effort to win her over, even after she is barred from the family table at Christmas. Undeterred and in love, she and Elio plough on towards graduation, when they will be free to live their lives together as they wish.
“Dear Elio,” I begin typing, admitting I’ve only survived our breakup by exiling myself to the bottom of the earth, New Zealand. From the misery of the farm, Elio mourns our lost future and struggles to understand why he sacrificed me. I urge him to move on, as I believe I have.
A falling ceiling and a Camorra shooting in their street fuel Elio’s distaste for Naples. However, Rebecca’s love for her adoptive city isn’t truly shaken until uncivilized New Year’s festivities send washing machines flying from balconies. The first earth tremor instills further fear, while Elio’s geological insight helps her see Mt Vesuvius for what it really is: a timebomb. The lovers find solace in their future far from all that.
When they return to the farm for the annual slaughtering of the pig, Elio’s mother threatens to take away his inheritance – the land – if he doesn’t leave Rebecca. Caving under the pressure, he becomes depressed and reticent. Rebecca fears that behind his inability to stand up to his mother is the “geological impossibility” that he no longer loves her. Elio insists that without Rebecca he is nothing, just a leaf blown about in the wind.
All our emails back and forth have piqued my old hunger for Naples. My upcoming plans to travel to Italy are met with high spirits. I’m surprised how relieved I feel to hear that Elio is unable to forget me. Our emails turn to giddy text messages as I move my way down the boot towards Naples.
With mounting obligations on the farm, graduation doesn’t deliver the promised freedom. Their standstill becomes even more apparent as Rebecca’s friends one by one abandon the ghetto. Then Elio himself leaves for Rome to begin his compulsory civil service. There, they argue. Fervently denying that his mother is bribing him, Elio’s lung spontaneously collapses. A week in the hospital plunges him into deeper depression. Beset with fears of death and poverty, he runs for comfort to the family farm. Yet Rebecca still refuses to give up on him. Convinced he will snap out of his inertia and follow her to prove his love, Rebecca announces she is flying back to Washington. A devastated Elio vows to come as soon as he can get a passport.
Back in New Zealand, my first email to Elio is bursting with adolescent excitement over having seen my old friends, Naples…and him. Sensing too this might be our second chance, Elio books a ticket to Auckland. However, first he has to undergo minor surgery, a complication which plagues him once more with feelings of inadequacy and doom.
On her last night, roaming through the heart of the Spanish Quarter, Rebecca loses her bearings. Trapped between towering walls, she comes face to face with a vicious-looking dog. However, finding her way past the beast unharmed, she realizes then that the strength to make it on her own – stripped of both the city and Elio – had always been within her.
In his last email, Elio confesses that he can’t tear himself away from the land of his ancestors. I can see now that this is a repetition of the mistake he made years earlier. He hasn’t changed at all, but I have. By exploring the past, I have faced my fears. And a more visceral sense of belonging has grown within me: Naples is forever a part of who I am.
I don’t write back to Elio until a few years later, to tell him about my recent wedding and the book I’ve written about our story. Honored that I wish to include his emails, he can’t wait to read the book, adding he is still unable to overcome “that period, those people, you…"