Allegra Goodman’s short story “La Vita Nuova”


My 47th story this year was another good one from my anthology, The Best American Short Stories of 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks. This story takes its name from a 13th century work of Dante Alighieri. The English translation, which you might’ve been able to guess, is “The New Life.” It centers around a year in the life of Amanda, an art teacher at a school near Harvard University. We learn in the very first sentence that her fiancée has left her. The story deals with her reactions to this “traumatic event.”

(below: *from Wikipedia* a famous painting of “Dante encountering Beatrice”)


One of her first acts is to bring her unused antique wedding dress to school and allow her class to use it as a canvas for sort of an ad hoc art project. This attracts the negative attention of school administrators who do not renew her employment at the end of the school year. She then spends the summer as a nanny/tutor for one of her former students, and establishes a unique bond with him.

I found her character to be quite interesting and sympathetic. Another part of her healing occurs when she begins to paint those Russian-type dolls (you know, the ones that are nested one inside the other until you are finally down to a little tiny doll), representing, from small to large, the growth of herself and other people she knows. I also liked that, as we would infer from the story’s title, it’s a tale of change. Amanda’s life has undergone an upheaval, and what follows will surely be a new life, with new people and maybe a new city being part of it. Certainly almost all of us have those key moments in life where we undergo a sea change – one so marked that we could almost have one of those Dorothy moments: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.” Some are likely more aware of these moments when looking back in time, but the ones who navigate them best are the ones who are aware they are taking place. Ones like Amanda.

Have you heard of – or read anything by – this author? Do you subscribe to or read the New Yorker (edition in which “La Vita Nuova” was published is pictured below)? It’s been a relatively recent addition to my reading regimen…



  1. Dale said,

    December 12, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Hi Jay! That part about navigating change best when one is aware it’s happening…brilliant! And I really like the painting, too.


    • Jay said,

      December 16, 2013 at 1:12 pm

      Thank, Dale. As it always seems to happen, since reading this story I’ve encountered a couple other literary references to “looking back at a time of change” – it’s certainly an interesting topic to ponder over…


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