I''ve seen this novel/travelogue by John Grisham described as a kind of "chick-lit" for guys because this story of food, fun, football (and self-discovery) in northern Italy is quite lightweight and perhaps even a bit frothy. It is certainly not the usual Grisham suspense/mystery fare!
And I'm enjoying it immensely -- much, much more than I had expected I would. In fact, I'm trying to slow down my reading so it won't end too soon!
"Playing for Pizza" is really an easy-going reworking of the classic metaphor, a physical journey that also becomes a voyage of self-discovery. Frances Mayes did something similar in "Under the Tuscan Sun," using the reconstruction of a house near Cortona to symbolize her discovery and development of a new, Italian self. And Homer probably did it first with Odysseus and his long search for home and self in The Odyssey.
Of course, Grisham's novel doesn't aspire to be an epic. But it borrows a bit from the theme. And I can rarely resist stories of travel, of Italy, and of self-discovery. Throw in some opera, great food and romance, and I'm totally involved.
I'm only halfway through the novel, but I can safely summarize this much: the story is set in the small city of Parma, in the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna. (Parma is also close to Bologna, where Grisham set a suspense novel, The Broker. Clearly, he has fallen hard for Italy!)
"Playing For Pizza" tells the story of a young NFL quarterback who is far too erratic a football player to belong in the big leagues, and after a major league disgrace, flees to Parma and paying gig with the little-known Parma Panthers of a fledgling Italian football league (American-style football, not soccer.) He quickly falls for the incredible food and wine; for the town, the people, and the other players who are almost all volunteers; he is one of just a handful of paid, professional players. Everyone else plays for the love of the game and are rewarded by the team owner with big post-game dinners -- often including pizza, which explains the title.
Rick (our hero) discovers great food, opera, and love -- love of Italy, of beauty and culture, of good food, a good woman, and of course, a renewed love -- or least, renewed self-respect -- for himself.
I have seen some negative reviews of "Playing for Pizza", and I can understand why many people wouldn't find it appealing. This isn't an important novel, with clever twists, a surprise ending, or great character development. Nor is it typical Grisham, although I think he tries to warn faithful readers of this fact on the cover, by announcing this is a novel, (not a thriller!) Some reviews have even complained about unnecessary descriptions of Italy, presumably readers who are completely plot-driven. And not interested in a travel story.
But for anyone who has been seduced by Italy's charms; anyone who has thrilled to discover the right way to order a coffee in an Italian bar, or learned how to park a Punta where no parking space really exists; or anyone who has been overwhelmed by the incredible tastes of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, might actually relate to Rick's feelings. And such a person will enjoy this novel.
There isn't much darkness here (at least, not so far!) Not much crime or betrayal of even much about the day to day struggles everyone faces. Rick the quarterback is certainly no conflicted, complicated soul like Michael Dibden's Aurelio Zen. Rick is pretty one-dimensional.
However, taken on its own terms, as an outsider's awe-struck view of Italy, this is a lovely read.