The Forever Fordham Alumni Book Club kicked off on October 20 when more than 30 Rams gathered on Zoom for the first of two one-hour discussions of Lizzie & Dante (Random House, 2021), the debut novel by Fordham English Department Chair Mary Bly, Ph.D. (The second discussion is scheduled for November 10.)

“As an English professor, I have to say, I think that literature can be one of the things that guides you through the toughest moments in your life,” Bly said at the outset.

Though Lizzie & Dante is the first novel she’s penned under her real name, Bly is also a romance author. Since the late 1990s, she has published more than 30 bestsellers and sold more than 7 million books under her pseudonym, Eloisa James.

In the novel, heroine Lizzie Delford embarks on a vacation to the Italian island of Elba, accompanied by her best friend and his boyfriend, as she decides whether or not to pursue cancer treatment. As she struggles to make some life-changing decisions—up against the clock—she meets a chef named Dante, his 12-year-old daughter Etta, and their dog Lily. What follows is a tale riddled with dilemmas: Is it morally right to fall in love and begin a relationship if you don’t have much time left? What if you do fall in love: Will it inevitably lead to broken hearts? And in the case of Etta, is it better for her to remain motherless or to embrace Lizzie as a mother figure for however long she’s available?

Fordham English Professor Stuart Sherman, Ph.D., a friend and frequent classroom collaborator of Bly’s, moderated the discussion.

“We’ve been friends for almost a quarter-century, taught at two schools together,” he said. “I read the book pretty much the day it dropped and completely fell in love with it, so it’s just a joy to be here.”

Earlier this month, alumni had an opportunity to purchase Lizzie & Dante and meet Bly during Homecoming weekend at Rose Hill, where she was on hand to sign copies under the tent on Edwards Parade. And prior to the first discussion, registrants were emailed a “Book Club Kit” chock full of digital goodies to help them prepare for the discussion and become immersed in Lizzie and Dante’s world. The kit included a welcome letter from Bly, a link to the novel’s cover reveal, discussion questions, a Spotify playlist of “Lizzie & Dante’s love story,” recipes for food and a signature cocktail, and even an excerpt from Paris in Love (Random House, 2012), a memoir Bly wrote as Eloisa James.

Alumni in attendance could use Zoom’s chat feature to submit questions and join the conversation, which Sherman focused largely on the novel’s resemblance to parts of Bly’s life. Though the book isn’t a memoir, some of the characters, aspects of the plot, and even the setting are drawn from Bly’s experiences—from Lizzie’s profession as a Shakespeare professor and her cancer diagnosis to the island of Elba itself, where Bly’s family frequently vacations.

Asked what it was like to create characters and events based on her own life and then dramatize them, Bly said that once she starts to build something, it “takes off. You take it, and you just let it go. That’s a wonderful thing about being a novelist.”

Bly also shared some insight into the writing and publishing process. Unlike her historical romance novels, which she writes quickly—about one book every year—she spent more than four years writing and rewriting Lizzie & Dante.

“If you have four and a half years, and you don’t have a contract, there’s no pressure” from your publisher, she said. “I’ve always had a book due since 1999. I am honored to be a lead author with Harper Collins, but if you’re a lead author, you cannot be late.”

With Lizzie & Dante, Bly said there was less deadline pressure, “the great gift of the literary novelist,” though she’s not sure if she wants to do it again.

“My editors would quite like me to write another [Mary Bly book], but I’m not sure because so much of me went into this book,” she said. “And you can’t bring all [the]threads together again without doing something fake, I think.”

Phillip Cicione, Ed.D., FCRH ’87, an English teacher in New York’s Commack school district, will moderate the second part of this fall’s alumni book club discussion, to be held on Wednesday, November, 10 at 8 p.m. EST. Learn more and register.