Editor’s Note: Today we’re thrilled to welcome our newest contributor to Clear Eyes, Full Shelves, Rebeca. She’s joining us as our Official Romance Correspondent, and you may remember her from the Book Matchmaker feature a few months ago. We’ll be posting a little introduction soon, but in the meantime, welcome to CEFS, Rebeca!
Can one book simultaneously be a Gothic mystery, a contemporary YA novel and travel writing?
Lauren Henderson has tackled this interesting mash-up with Flirting in Italian.
Violet, the protagonist, has recently graduated from secondary school and aims to attend Cambridge in the fall. Her plans do not include a mysterious painting, a trip to Italy or a brooding prince. (Bad planning on her part, in my opinion.)
Luckily for both Violet and readers, her life takes a sharp turn for the more adventurous.
While preparing for her art history A-level, Violet stumbles across a painting in a museum that could be her mirror image, circa 1790. This would be remarkable enough, but she has long wondered over her lack of resemblance to either branch of her family. The painting lures her to Italy and the secrets that await her there.
Henderson does a good job establishing a tense, mysterious atmosphere in which the somewhat improbable plot makes more sense.
The heavy oak kitchen door at the far end of the long room swings open with such force that it slams against the wall. Sunshine floods in, and I realize how dark it was in here, how little natural light this kitchen has. A figure’s silhouetted against the brightness outside, tall and lean, and in the next moment it tears toward us threateningly, footsteps ringing loudly on the stone flags.
Just don’t hold your breath for all the answers as this is only the first book in a series.
Since the mystery is the impetus of the plot, readers must weigh the unresolved riddles against the emotional facets of the novel. If the focus had been centered on the emotional development of the characters a few loose ends wouldn’t overly bother me. Instead, with so much of the focus of the book centered on the mystery, I was unsatisfied with an ending that offered few answers.
As for that emotional development, Henderson has an excellent grasp on both group dynamics and the struggle to differentiate from one’s parents.
Maybe that’s how it always works: maybe you never realize how squashed in you’ve been until the restrictions vanish, and you can finally stretch out your arms.
That time in our lives when we first learn to measure the full reach of our own arms is precious. Perhaps that’s part of the draw to YA lit; no matter how old we are we can always use the reminder of what it feels like to stretch into a new shape, a bigger shape.
Henderson’s characters are poised on the brink of that transformation and I wish they had taken the plunge.
Instead, they seemed almost frozen in that moment before discovery.
Luca, Violet’s love interest, is a prime example of this stasis. He never lives up to his title (he’s a real, honest to goodness Italian Prince). We see the broodingly handsome exterior, mercurial changes in temper, and hints of a real affection for Violet. We don’t get to see behind the facade or learn all about his motivations. By the conclusion of the book I was as confused as Violet about his true feelings and I failed to see any emotional development. He was still a boy, not a man, defined more by those around him then any internal sense of self.
Though it’s lonely, in a way, to be surrounded by people I only met for the first time today, it also means that I can re-invent myself, be whoever I want to be, without my mother always looking over my shoulder, or coming up with some wonderful fun idea for the two of us to do together that somehow stops me from having ideas of my own.
Traveling is a wonderful impetus for personal transformation. I should know; I was lucky enough to travel to Italy and Greece recently. In fact, serendipitously, I read Flirting in Italian while traveling in Italy. My trip actually paralleled Violet’s in more than one respect.
Besides the ciao bella’s and ancient architecture, we both had to adapt to a life without our family at the forefront. Yes, I noticed that guys were flirtier and the countryside was stunning. Yes, the food was consistently incredible. Yes, everyone drove like they were training for NASCAR. But I could have told you those things without leaving the comfort of my home.
For me the most important memories of the trip were the unexpected moments.
For me, Italy was about the routine metro strikes, the teenager in the museum cloakroom reading about modern art, the dogs that popped up aboard trains and hidden beneath table cloths. It is the unexpected that captivates and enchants, that makes travel rewarding.
Henderson’s observations on growing up make for insightful reading. Unfortunately, these moments of personal growth take a backseat to the mystery in this book, and her writing about Italy lacks immediacy. I felt this book didn’t quite live up to its potential but nonetheless, Flirting in Italian left me interested in reading Henderson’s other books.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.