Ted Hollander is in Naples looking for his niece, Sasha. Sasha’s stepfather, Hammer, has paid for Ted to go looking for her, but Ted has been ignoring his duty to find Sasha. He instead goes to Pompeii and looks at the paintings and mummified bodies left after the volcanic eruption in the year 79 AD. In the early evening, he returns to his hotel, and calls Sasha’s mother to report he hasn’t found her. He apologizes, and says he will look for her tomorrow, though he already has plans to visit an art museum.
The scenery of destruction at Pompeii is related to the ruin Ted feels in his personal life. His dishonesty about searching for Sasha speaks to a lack of authenticity and an apathetic disconnection from those he loves. Ted is presented as another character who derives great meaning and pleasure from some kind of art—in his case, visual art.
Back at his hotel, Ted gets a drink and calls his wife, Susan. She asks if everything is all right, but her merry tone disheartens him. During his time in Pompeii, Ted has been imagining a slightly different version of his wife —one who is more thoughtful and knowing. At Pompeii he imagined her listening with him to the screams and sliding ash. He feels guilty about his waning affection and love for Susan. At first Susan was baffled and distraught by Ted’s lack of attraction to her, but eventually she had taken on a relentless cheeriness that Ted despises. It makes him feel hopeless.
Ted and his wife Susan don’t share an authentic relationship, which is reflected in her merry tone and the way she pretends everything is fine. The image of Ted and Susan at Pompeii furthers the idea that their relationship is in “ruin.” Ted holds no hope for redemption, but continues to move through the relationship without acknowledging the destruction.
Susan puts Ted’s son on the phone. Ted says hello in a cheery tone, and his son tells him not to use the “fake dad voice.” His son tells him they lost their soccer game. Ted talks to his other two children, and they also tell him about their sports scores. His sons play different sports in an attempt to gain attention from their father. The conversations leave Ted feeling drunk and anxious to get out of the hotel. He notes that he doesn’t usually drink because the two hours he has in the evening away from his family are spent thinking and writing about art. He is a tenured art history professor. He locks his children out of his office at night to work, but despite the escape, he usually does not think or write.
Ted’s son recognizes the lack of authenticity in Ted’s character. His children seek connection with their father through sports, but Ted rejects these “offerings.” Ted is unable to reconcile his conflicting identities—that of an art scholar and that of a father—and this leaves him unable to be fulfilled as either.
At dusk, Ted goes to the Piazza Vittoria. The Plaza is teeming with families and kids playing soccer. There are also threatening youths wandering around, and despite Ted’s size, he is frightened of them. He thinks of them living in despair in the same place that their ancestors lived lavish lives, doing drugs on the steps of churches where their ancestors are buried. Ted worries Sasha is among them. She disappeared two years ago at the age of seventeen, the way her father also disappeared. Sasha has struggled with drug addition, shoplifting, and suicide attempts. Ted remembers her as a lovely and bewitching young girl, but later recalls her turning his young boys away for fear of polluting them. Ted then wanted nothing to do with Sasha, believing she was lost for good.
Ted focuses on the way in which time has had destructive effects on Italian culture and people. Ted provides more insight into the development of Sasha’s identity through his memory of her, which creates meaning across the novel’s different stories and references to Sasha’s life. There has always been something in her that Ted believed was destructive, and his lack of hope for her redemption is clear in his idea that she is lost for good.
The next morning, Ted takes a taxi to the Museo Nazionale. He views a relief sculpture called Orpheus and Eurydice. He recalls the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: their love and marriage, Eurydice’s death by snakebite while fleeing from the advances of another man, Orpheus descending to the underworld and promising Pluto not to look back at her as they exit, and his inability not to look. As Ted views the sculpture, he is moved by the quiet of the interaction depicted, the absence of drama and their gentle touch. He lingers on their unspeakable knowledge that everything is lost. He visits the piece several more times before leaving the museum.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice connects to the idea or ruin (death) and redemption (re-birth). In the myth, however, Eurydice is not redeemed—Orpheus breaks his promise, and Eurydice dies a second death, being wrenched back to Hades. Ted finds meaning in his own experience through the myth. In a large sense, this speaks to the way in which art provides meaning in individual lives. In a more specific sense, Ted believes he is in Naples to redeem Sasha, but like the myth, the mission is ultimately hopeless.
Ted leaves, and as he walks, the decaying churches strike him and the soiled coats of arms carved into the doorways. He notes that these universal and defining symbols are made meaningless by time. He imagines his wife behind him, equally entranced by the city. As he walks, he notices a woman selling cigarettes from her window. A girl buys a pack, and as Ted approaches, he realizes it is Sasha. He follows her for a short while, noticing that she is limping. Eventually, Sasha turns and confronts him.
The image of the churches and the coats of arms decaying speaks to the destructive power of time and the way in which it strips away the meaning attached to objects of cultural significance. Ted’s mention of Susan shows his desire for connection with her. Simultaneously, he has the opportunity to connect with Sasha, though he is hesitant because of his belief that she is irredeemable.
Ted tries to make small talk; avoiding the reason he is here. He asks Sasha about her limp, which she says is the result of an ankle injury she got falling down a flight of stairs in Tangiers. Ted is surprised by Sasha’s maturity, and perceives the changes she has undergone as instantaneous and startling. She also looks fragile to him. Sasha asks Ted if he still lives in Upstate New York, and recalls the names of his children. He is surprised she remembers, but Sasha tells him she remembers everything. Sasha says she is going to visit friends, but it was nice to see him. Ted asks if he can take her to dinner, and she agrees to go that evening.
Like in other moments of emotional tension, Ted here strays away from the truth and sticks to small talk. The seeming suddenness of Sasha’s changes emphasizes the idea of time and the way in which its impact on the novels characters is unforgiving and unstoppable. Ted is surprised by Sasha’s memory, but for Sasha memory is a significant element of her character, as her current situation and identity is rooted in the pain of her past.
Ted returns to his hotel and makes his daily call to Sasha’s mother, Beth. He knows she will be happy that Sasha seems to be doing well. Ted does not feel the same way. He doesn’t know why he felt peaceful knowing he should be looking for Sasha, but failing to do so. Lying on his bed, he remembers the summer he lived with Sasha’s father, Andy, and Beth on Lake Michigan. Sasha was five at the time. When her parents fought, Ted would take Sasha to the beach. She had long red hair at the time, he remembers. When the sand was too hot from the sun, Ted would carry Sasha in his arms, set her on a towel and put sunscreen on her. He would wonder what would become of her after growing up amid so much violence.
In the past, Ted believed he could protect Sasha, but he has abandoned that belief, which reveals the way in which time has changed him as a person. The sun is here associated with the damaging effects of time, so carrying Sasha across the hot sand symbolically speaks to Ted’s idea that he could protect her from the damage she will experience in her life. Even as he attempts to protect her, however, he senses that her experience as a girl living amid violence will have ruinous effects on her life.
When Sasha was little, Ted took her to the beach one day. Ted told Sasha he was working as a contractor to pay his way through graduate school. Sasha asked about floor sanders, and revealed that she knew a man who sanded the floors in their house. Ted grew suspicious after Sasha told him the man gave her a fish. Ted asked if it was a goldfish, but Sasha said it was a bathtub fish. Ted asked if it squeaked, and Sasha said yes, but she didn’t like the sound. Ted notes that these stories were used to distract her from her parents fighting, and this made her seem older than she really was.
In this moment we see a more authentic version of Ted, before he became consumed by his identity as an art historian and disconnected from his family. Ted’s protective feelings for Sasha show his love for and connection with her, which has since faded. Through Ted’s memory, we also see a version of Sasha that explains her challenges in the narrative present. We understand that her traumatic past has led to her current life.
Sasha would ask if Ted would take her swimming, and he always agreed. She would lay her head against his chest and hold onto him. He would sense her mounting dread as they approached the water. Ted tried to make it easy for her, but Sasha would always gasp and tighten her grip as they entered the water. Once in the water, Sasha would be fine, but Ted always felt as if he were subjecting her to some pain. He always felt the desire to rescue her, and take her away. He worried about the summer ending and returning to school, but when it was time to leave Sasha barely looked at him, and he left feeling angry.
Water often points to the idea of ruin in the novel. The image of Ted and Sasha in the water together speaks to the pain they will both experience in their lives, but the image also involves connection. Yet despite their connection, Ted perceived a meaningfulness in their relationship that wasn’t apparent to Sasha, and this was painful for him. The story suggests this is the moment where Ted’s understanding of relationships and connection began to change.
Sasha arrives at Ted’s hotel that evening, and he feels surprised and reluctant. He was hoping she wouldn’t show up. Sasha takes him to an affluent neighborhood called Vomero. After getting out of the taxi, Ted looks toward Mount Vesuvius and pictures the imagined version of Susan next to him. Sasha tells Ted she lives in this neighborhood, and Ted says he could have met her here instead of at her hotel, but Sasha says most foreigners get robbed in Naples. Ted says that Sasha is a foreigner, and she agrees, but says she knows her way around.
Ted didn’t want Sasha to show up because her presence gives him the responsibility to try to save her, and he doesn’t believe he can. Sasha is associated with Susan in this moment—the Susan Ted imagines, with whom he is able to connect. Sasha’s perception of Ted as a foreigner and herself as a local person shows that she has shaped her present identity around her experience in Naples.
At the restaurant, Ted and Sasha sit in a window seat. Sasha keeps looking at the young people beyond the window riding and sitting on Vespa Scooters. When Ted asks if she knows any of them, Sasha says they are students, speaking in a way that suggests that students are nothing, and that most of them still live at home. She changes the subject to Ted’s life, asking if he is still a professor. Jarred again by her memory, Ted feels the pressure he often feels when he talks about his work. He has gone into monstrous debt to get his art history degree. He tells her he is writing about the impact of Greek sculpture on French Impressionists, but Sasha seems to find it uninteresting. She asks about Susan and whether he loves her. He says of course he does.
Sasha’s criticism of the young people suggests insecurity in her character, as we know from the last chapter that she does return to school. She finds meaning in her current lifestyle based on the fact that she is out on her own and not with her parents. Sasha’s lack of interest toward Ted’s new book increases his self-consciousness. Instead, Sasha changes the subject to Susan, which directs Ted to another role he struggles with—that of a husband and family man. He is yet again unable to speak honestly about his relationship with Susan.
They eat dinner, and after a second glass of wine, Sasha begins to open up. She had run away from home with a man named Wade, who is the drummer in a touring band. They went first to Tokyo, and Ted feels a twinge of envy when she says this. After that they went to Hong Kong. Wade left Sasha in Hong Kong, and she traveled with some friends through China. Ted asks if the friends from China were the same friends she had in Naples. Sasha tells him she meets friends wherever she goes.
Sasha’s comments about “friends” connect to her ideas of identity—Sasha does not know who she really is, so her identity is fluid, shifting depending on the situation. She is able to connect with people wherever she goes, but this lack of true identity also creates destructive relationships.
After leaving the restaurant, Ted and Sasha go to a nightclub. Sasha tells him her friends own the place. She asks Ted to buy her a drink with a little umbrella. As he goes to the bar, he thinks that Sasha has seen more of the world in two years than he has in twenty. He feels like escaping her. He returns to her and gives her the drink, and as she takes a sip he notices a scar on her wrist. She says it is from before, and won’t show Ted, so he grabs her hand, and takes a certain angry pleasure in hurting her. There are more scars, and Sasha says a lot were by accident. Ted says she has had a hard time, though she won’t admit it. There is a pause, and then Sasha tells Ted she used to think she saw her father in China and Morocco. She used to think that he was following her to make sure she was ok, and then when she realized he wasn’t she got really scared.
Ted again regrets not living as fully as Sasha. The scars are another indication of the ruin Sasha has experienced in her life, and also connect her to Rob from the last chapter, who attempted suicide—their connection becomes clearer in this moment, as again Egan reveals a stray fact that causes us to rethink earlier events in a different light. Sasha found relief in the idea that her father may be following her, but the realization that he wasn’t indicated a true disconnection from him, and the fact of being truly alone scared her.
Finally, Sasha asks Ted what he is doing in Naples. He lies, telling her he is there to look at art. Sasha’s face slackens, and she says she thought he came to look for her. She suggests they dance, and grabs Ted’s hand, pulling him to the dance floor. He begins dancing, but quickly realizes Sasha is just standing there. When he stops, she hugs him, and he realizes then that she has grown up, that the little girl he once loved is gone, just like the young man he was when he used to love her. Sasha lets go, tells Ted to wait where he is, and disappears. When she doesn’t return, Ted goes to the bar to buy another drink. When he reaches for his wallet, he discovers Sasha has stolen it.
Sasha secretly hoped Ted was there to find her, which speaks to her desire for connection, and feels let down by the belief he isn’t in fact there for her. The apparent moment of connection (which is in fact simply an opportunity for Sasha to steal the wallet) forces Ted to realize that time really has passed, and they have both changed.
The next morning Ted wakes in his hotel. The night before he had gone to the police and reported his wallet stolen, but he didn’t give them Sasha’s name. Ted goes out searching for Sasha, knowing he has to find her that day. He takes a taxi to the Museo Nazionale and sets off in the direction he’d gone when he found Sasha yesterday. He finds his way to the place where they parted ways, where Sasha said her friends lived, and goes inside. He meets an old woman, and tells her he is looking for Sasha, an American with red hair. As he says it in Italian, he realizes the description is not true anymore, since Sasha’s hair is no longer the red color it was when she was little.
Ted understands Sasha’s life is already in a state of ruin, so he doesn’t increase the destruction by giving her name to the police. His attempt to find her suggests he has not given up on her, and now believes she can be redeemed. The fact that he describes Sasha by the way she looked when she was young, however, suggests that Ted is still trying to hang onto an idea of Sasha when she was younger, even though he knows she is a very different person now.
The woman says she doesn’t know, but when Ted gives her a twenty-dollar bill, she leads Ted up the stairs. On the second floor, he sees a decrepit piano, and even in its state of decay, recognizes it as a sign of nobility. The woman notices Ted admiring the piano, and with pride throws open the doors to a big dim-lit room with moldy walls. The woman switches on the light, and Ted sees murals painted on the wall of women clutching fruit and clumps of dark leaves. She brings him to the third floor, where two boys share a cigarette. He smells dope and stale olive oil and realizes that the place is a rooming house. On the fifth floor, where the servants once lived, the woman leads him to a door.
The relationship between time and decay is reflected in the rooming house. It was once a place of nobility, but has shifted into a state of ruin where young transients engage in drug use. The fact that Sasha lives on the floor where the servants once lived is also meaningful. Earlier in the story, she pretends she is living comfortably in a wealthy area of Naples, but it now becomes clear that she was not letting Ted see the truth of her situation at all.
Inside, Ted sees Sasha, half asleep on the bed. She says hello, but as soon as the old woman rounds the corner, she slams the door in Ted’s face, telling him to go away. Ted waits behind the door. When he asks Sasha if this is where she lives, she tells him she is moving someplace better. Ted asks if she will move when she’s picked enough pockets, and Sasha says it was a friend of hers who did it. She tells him to leave again, but he can’t. He waits, and a long while later, Sasha asks if he is still there. The door opens and his wallet drops out. Sasha tells him to go to hell. Ted remains, sitting for what feels like hours, imagining that he is an element of the palace himself, bearing the ebb and flow of generations and feeling the place relax into the earth.
Sasha attempts to present different identities at different moments. She is polite to the old woman, but as soon as she is gone, her attitude changes. Likewise, her comment about moving someplace better suggests she feels insecure about her situation, as it does not reflect the inauthentic image she presented to Ted. The fact that Ted stays, however—even after getting his wallet back and being told to leave—suggests a shift in his character. He had decided not to give up on Sasha. His focus on the passage of time suggests an acceptance of the ways in which things have changed.
Eventually Sasha comes out. Ted asks where she is going, and she walks to the shower without saying a word. When she returns, she opens the bedroom door, and explains that she cleans the place to pay her rent. Ted asks if it makes her happy. She slams the door on him again. As he waits for Sasha, he thinks about Susan, not the imagined version of her from earlier, but his real wife. He remembers riding the Staten Island Ferry with her, and Susan telling him that they need to make sure their life is always like it was in that moment. He knew she’d said it because she’d felt, in that moment, the passage of time. He remembers feeling it too. He’d taken Susan’s hand and said it will always be that way. Recently, he’d asked Susan about that day, but she said she didn’t remember it. Ted knew she did remember, but he had let go of the woman she was that day.
Ted’s question about whether Sasha is happy is an attempt to access her in an authentic way—but Sasha, of course, rejects the questions. The imagining of Susan as her true self speaks to a shift in Ted’s character—both a desire to reconnect with his wife and the hope of redeeming their relationship. Both Ted and Susan have become different people since the time of this memory, though Susan chooses not to hold onto the past through memory. She would rather avoid the issue altogether.
Later that afternoon, Sasha opens the door and lets Ted inside. The room is small, and the sun is just beginning to set. The windowsill is full of objects that Ted assumes are souvenirs from Sasha’s travels. A crude circle made out of a bent coat hanger hangs in the middle of the window. Ted realizes how alone she is in this place. Sasha, as if sensing his thoughts, says she knows a lot of good people, but the friendships never last. Ted sits beside her and puts his arm around her and says life is harder if one does it alone.
The setting sun suggests that this stage of Sasha’s life is ending. Ted assumes that the objects are from Sasha’s travels, but they are actually stolen objects (as we saw even in the first story), attempts to connect with others and establish her identity through them. Ted unconsciously understands that the objects reflect Sasha’s loneliness and disconnection, however.
The story then jumps forward twenty years, and Ted, long divorced, visits Sasha at her home. She is married with two children. Sitting there, he remembers her room in Naples, and the jolt of surprise he experienced when the sun dropped into the center of the window and was captured in the wire coat hanger. The story flashes back to Sasha and Ted sitting in her room. The sun illuminates her hair and face with orange light. “See,” Sasha says, staring at the sun. “It’s mine.”
Ted does not find redemption for his marriage, but he does at least reconnect with Sasha. The sun is again linked to the theme of time, as Sasha’s “capture” of the sun is a reminder that she has her whole life ahead of her. At the same time, her claim that “it’s mine” relates to her hoarding of stolen objects and desire to control her fate—she wants time itself to be something she can steal.