Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Review: "The Italian Party" by Christina Lynch

On its surface, Christina Lynch's The Italian Party is like a fancy dessert—it's lovely to look at, but you aren't sure if there will be any substance beneath the decorative frills. But when you dig in, you realize there's more to it than meets the eye.

Newlyweds Scottie and Michael leave America to move to Siena, Italy, where Michael will be selling Ford tractors to Italian farmers, to get them to start absorbing American culture. It's the 1950s, not long after World War II, and there are signs that Italy is ripe for the influence of Communism, something that America fears.

Scottie and Michael don't really know each other that well—they married fairly quickly, and each made assumptions about the other. Scottie left her studies at Vassar (she wasn't much of a student anyway, and feels good about getting her "MRS." degree), and doesn't want Michael to know that before marrying him she was mostly interested in celebrity gossip, fashion, and horses. Meanwhile, Michael is all too happy to flee his parents' unhappy marriage and the memories of an older brother who died in the war, a brother who wasn't very nice to him anyway.

Neither is really sure how to make a marriage work, and both have major secrets they're hiding from the other. Michael is ostensibly "working" in Rome quite a bit, or he's at his office trying to sell tractors to reluctant Italians, which leaves her home alone, without much knowledge of Italian or anyone to talk with. It leaves her vulnerable to the attentions of other men, so in an effort to help her cope, Michael encourages a teenage boy from the community, Robertino, to teach her Italian.

When Robertino disappears, Scottie is determined to find out what happened to him, and she becomes a thorn in the side of those supposedly investigating his case. The deeper she digs, the more secrets she uncovers—about her husband, his job, their marriage, and their purpose for being in Italy. While these secrets throw her completely off-guard and make her wonder what she should do, they also ignite a passion within her, a passion to make things right in a city she has come to love.

"Italy was not carefree and sexy like they made it seem in Roman Holiday. It was dense and mysterious and dangerous and confusing."

Novels taking place in Italy, like Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins or Delia Ephron's Siracusa, tend to charm me, because their setting often seems so magical and glamorous. That charm worked for me with The Italian Party as well. I thought Lynch did a good job juxtaposing the frivolous and serious, interjecting elements of history with the story of a relationship built on secrets and lies.

At times my attention wavered a bit, when the characters stopped to lecture each other a bit about history and politics, but for the most part, I really enjoyed this. Lynch definitely kept me guessing—even though many elements seem familiar, the way she put them together made the story compelling. Her characters are flawed yet fascinating, and she did a terrific job with imagery and details. Oh, and if you read this with an empty stomach, man, you'll be hungry!!

I was intrigued by this book when I saw a number of my Goodreads friends reading it, and even though their opinions were mixed, I really wanted to read it. I enjoyed it—it's not perfect, but it's a compelling, well-written read, with lots of twists and turns.

Ciao, bella!!

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