Marcus of Umbria:
What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love

by Justine van der Leun


Rodale, 2010. ISBN 978-1-605-29960-0.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 08/02/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

Justine van der Leun's reader-friendly book is a love story. Not the typical love story of a couple that meet, spark, and live happily-ever-after, but the bond between a woman and her dog.

It is possible that van der Leun is either ADD or just incredibly impulsive. Falling in love with a rural Italian during a vacation, she spontaneously gives up her New York City studio and her unsatisfying job at a magazine and moves to Collelungo, Italy. It is a very small village, and her lover's family is large and extended. Struggling with the language, and the new and unfamiliar environment, van der Leun comes to quickly realize that she may very well be way beyond her comfort level for living her ideal life.

She doesn't know the language, and ingrained Italian traits befuddle her; dogs, for example, are not pets, but hunters, used, and discarded as much as one would a chicken or a sheep. Endeavoring to deepen her ties to her lover and his family, she finds herself still longing for a true companion, a connection that she can relate to and understand. In comes Marcus. Belonging to a family member, Marcus has spent the first year of life caged, fed when someone remembered, and painfully neglected. Van der Leun swoops in, angrily dismayed, and insists that Marcus be given into her care.

The dog is a purebred (with papers!) English Pointer. And a female. Well, Marcus she remains. Wildly enthusiastic about her release from captivity and deprivation, Marcus gives van der Leun the affection and compassion that she is sadly lacking in her misplaced life in Italy. Marcus still lives in an outdoor pen, but with good food, fresh water, and a classy blue dog house; she spends hours on the village hills with her new human companion, running, flushing birds, and reveling in her changed circumstances.

Yet the battles continue. Neutering/spaying is not an accepted practice in rural Italy; puppies are often shot or drowned at birth. Such Italian viewpoints are totally rejected by van der Leun. Her lover's father proclaims, "Your dog must experience lovemaking just once, or what is her life?" But Marcus is not a farm dog, or a hunter, she is a pet, a concept not heretofore seen in this part of Italy! And when van der Leun decides that for Marcus's own safety, (and to keep her from turning into a predator of local chickens and bunnies) that she needs to take up residence as an inside dog, the neighbors are appalled. "The neighbors peeked from their windows, gasping as the brute emerged from a dwelling made only for immaculate humans. I had created a great scandal."

Slowly, van der Leun makes unpleasant decisions and grasps the realities of her life: the author feels she is not meant for Italy, she is not meant for this man, and she is not meant to give up the treasure she has found in Marcus. She and Marcus had bonded in a deep and primeval way as companions for life. She says her goodbyes to the life she had tried to create in Collelungo, and returns stateside, with Marcus in a sturdy airline crate. Van der Leun has no regrets; she learned much, loved much, and was now ready to go on with her life, knowing that Marcus would be at her side. An enjoyable read, with the flavors of Bridget Jones and Marley & Me, Marcus of Umbria paints an intimate picture of the Italy few get to know, and gives the reader affirmation that a good dog is a treasure to be kept for life.


Justine was born in New York City and grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. After a short stint at Wellesley College, she graduated from The Gallatin School at NYU. In addition to Marcus of Umbria, she is also the co-author of Sergio Esposito's Passion on the Vine. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, The Paris Review Daily, The North Carolina Quarterly, The New York Observer, The Bark, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and all over the web. Visit her website.

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