The Italian
by Elaine Coffman, historical (2002)
MIRA, $6.99, ISBN 1-55166-946-3


This book is like a Disney cartoon about the Italy's revolution against the Austrian empire in the 19th century, starring Pepe LePew. The hero and the heroine's love story is secondary to the laundry list of scenery chewing and very simple political intrigue, and best of all, everybody speaks in arch, overflowery speeches. In a way, the Italians here are as stereotypical as a Roberto Benigni movie.

Beatrice Fairweather is an English painter ("Yes, I'm plain, plain, plain, plain!") who travels back to Italy to catch up with friends and family and maybe, just maybe, put a closure to her aborted love story with idealistic revolutionary Angelo Bartolini. She ends up living in the house belonging to Angelo's momma. By coincidence (hah) Angelo decides to go there too to lay down low when the law gets a bit too hot on his heels. Patriotism and amour war in our lovers' hearts as they exchange passionate declarations in lilac-scented breath and with glowing moonrocks in their eyes.

If you prefer the usual flow of romance uninterrupted by long accounts of political stuff and - horror - longer separation between Angelo and Beatrice, The Italian is probably not for you. Personally, I confess I find myself liking the author's romancticization of the Italian scenery and passion as well as the very naive idealism of the story. It's hard to take Angelo seriously when he actually considers it a good idea for a certain incestuous womanizing trout called Lord Byron to join his league of radicals, but his enthusiasm can be very charming. (Of course, if he has seen that musical Les Miserables, Angelo will know where his nonsense will lead him to - singing about drinking wines with fellow losers surrounded by a barricade of chairs, wondering what happened to the red, black, blue nonsense they were trumpeting earlier.)

But the author's dialogues see me pressing my hand to my chest as much as I hum Drink With Me in my mind as I turn the pages. For example, here is what a stranger tells Beatrice on the train when they first meet: "You must understand, cara that not all compassions are made to injure. I am trying to understand you. You are puzzling to the extreme, and therefore exasperating. [snip] Do you not see that it is only when you try to be a rose that you fail? Be what you are, Gentiana... grow where you are planted... bloom at your appointed time."

Wow.

Angelo's mom knows how to lay the guilt trip thick: "Is that truly you, or are you a ghost composed of all my yearnings to see my son after so long an absence?"

Picture an entire book of such conversations and that is what The Italian is. Them funny Italians - they want a revolution, but their main priority is to sit down and talk about important matters of the heart. Toss politics, we Gentianas must bloom at our appointed time first. This Italy must be the biggest hippie commune that never existed.

No, I don't think "blooming" is a nice way of talking about a woman's period, at least, I don't think that is what the author is talking about. Right, Ms Coffman?

I confess I like The Italian because it is largely an unformulaic romance novel, if I don't count the ridiculous villain, when it comes to style, technique, and flow of storyline. Also, the atmosphere is unabashedly romantic - sometimes too romantic. However at the same time, the lack of actual concrete developments in the relationship between Beatrice and Angelo can be frustrating. In the end, I find The Italian a pleasant read. Even after I have disengaged my expections of a romance novel to enjoy this book, the final product is still a somewhat too-sugary, underbaked confection. A little more meat to go along with the sweetness would have gone a long way to making this book a more memorable reading experience.

Rating: 79


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