Professor Mary Bly’s latest novel is a departure from the more than 7 million romance books she’s sold under the pen name Eloisa James. Lizzie & Dante (Random House, 2021), cuts closer to home than anything she has published before and represents the first time she’s published a hard-cover novel under her own name.
Bly, who chairs the Department of English, began to make the transition to her own voice with her last book, Paris in Love (Random House, 2013). The book was still published under her pen name, though it was a thinly veiled account of Bly’s own year-long journey with her family to the City of Light.
Lizzie & Dante is set on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy. It’s a vacation spot that Bly refers to as the “scruffy little island where Napoleon was exiled.” It’s also a getaway that she and her Italian husband have been visiting for years.
“It’s not like Capri, it’s not a fancy island. It’s not where the yachts go. It’s where Italians go and bring their children,” said Bly.
The island’s laid-back vibe stands in stark contrast to the Midwest where Bly was brought up by her “workaholic parents,” the poet Robert Bly and author Carol Bly. Carol Bly succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2007, a disease that Lizzie, the novel’s main character, copes with when she chooses to travel to the island rather than sustain more painful treatments.
“My heroine is making a decision about whether to go into further treatment. I think every cancer patient facing a rigorous treatment plan makes that decision, consciously or unconsciously,” said Bly, who is a cancer survivor herself. “She goes to the island with her closest friends, who became her found family.”
Lizzie arrives on the island with her oldest friend and his lover. Through them, Bly attempts to tease out questions of chosen families and the very nature of love itself.
“How we love is not necessarily determined by who we want to have sex with,” said Bly. “This book is a much wider notion of love than what I’m able to do within the bounds of 400 pages of historical romance.”
To that end, Lizzie meets and falls for an Italian chef and his 11-year-old daughter, who unwittingly further extends her notion of a found family.
“It’s my first novel and it is set in the present, so I wanted it to be something that I knew incredibly well,” said Bly. “I know Elba and I know Italian food. And while I don’t know Italian chefs, I know Italian men.”
The novel took Bly four years to write. She said she knows the ins and outs of historical romance but writing for the current moment proved a rather difficult task. Paris in Love was a contemporary memoir, but the cast of characters was primarily limited to her immediate family. For Lizzie and Dante, she wanted the story to be accessible and inclusive, which meant creating contemporary characters who Lizzie may befriend, but whose background differs from Bly’s own. To that end, Bly noted that the book went through sensitivity readings to ensure gay and Black characters read as authentic. It’s a role that Bly said didn’t exist when she taught a publishing course at Fordham, but one she said she’s thankful for now.
“That role came about over the last several years, for white authors in particular who were thinking, ‘I need to make sure this works from another person’s point of view,’” she said.
Indeed, much of what she’s learned over the course of relaunching her career as Mary Bly could become an outline for a new publishing course. She noted that though her last book was in essence a memoir, switching to her own name required negotiations with her publisher to come out as herself.
“Obviously, they would rather it was published as Eloisa James, but I felt that this is not a romance. This is a love story, and it has much more of the dark side of life in it because Lizzie is fighting cancer,” said Bly.
In addition, Lizzie’s love of poetry and music, to say nothing of her role as a Shakespeare scholar, align far more with author Mary Bly’s personality than that of bodice ripper novels by Eloisa James. Lizzie sings from the same Episcopalian hymn books that Bly grew up with. Lizzie reads poetry by poets who were friends of Bly’s parents. And she’s a Shakespeare professor at Fordham.
“I know that a lot of my readers automatically buy an Eloisa James book, and it did not seem fair to them to be giving them something that was considerably more challenging. And as it says on the cover, it’s a novel, not a romance,” said Bly. “Also, I thought it was a Mary Bly book. I’m the Shakespeare professor, right?”
Bly will be signing copies of the Lizzie and Dante at Homecoming on Oct. 9 in the main tent as part of the newly-launched Fordham Alumni Book Club.