A couple of years back while sauntering through an old used bookstore in Chicago, I stumbled upon an author I had never heard of – Lucinda Riley. And the book was The Orchid House. I enjoyed it and over the past few years, have tried to read as many of her works. She writes in a genre I like – historical fiction with a bit of romance. Riley’s style of writing is easy to read and evocative. She captures the setting of a scene very well, something that is evident in her books like The Orchid House, The Midnight Rose and The Girl on a Cliff.
So it was with much interest, I picked up The Italian Girl a couple of days back.
One of her earlier works, The Italian Girl had been published as Aria under the name Lucinda Edmonds in 1996. She has extensively rewritten it and updated it for a new audience.
Like most of Riley’s books, The Italian Girl is also an easy read. The main protagonist is a female character, Rosanna Menici and the story follows her life. We get to meet Rosanna as a shy, plain, under confident eleven year old, in awe of and overshadowed by her gorgeous elder sister, Carlotta in Naples. The parents love and dote on their elder daughter, ignoring the younger one and life goes on with Rosanna and their brother Luca slogging it out in helping them run their pizza cafe. Till one fine May afternoon, when her gift is recognised and appreciated – she has a fantastic voice and is a brilliant singer. And the appreciation comes from a family friend, a young rising Opera star from Milan, the flashy, charming Roberto (seventeen years older than her) one summer afternoon. He encourages her to cultivate this talent and suggests that she learn from his erstwhile teacher. Perhaps it is his voice, or the fact that he is the first person to pay any attention to her besides Luca, Rosanna falls in love and decides to marry him! Luca pays for her secret music lessons and soon she is on her way to becoming a music sensation. The story is about how her life transforms and takes her away from Naples and how her destiny is enter-twined with that of Roberto’s. It is also about talent and loss and the choices one makes.
It is a story about obsessive and all-consuming love and passion. The grand setting (two famous opera singers) kind of establishes and justifies the dramatic quality of the relationship between the main characters. Both the characters are flawed. I did not like Rosanna or Roberto. Rosanna started off by being an endearing character, but soon turns out to be a selfish, pigheaded girl, with a remarkable ostrich like quality, to not reflect on her actions and the consequences it has had on others. Roberto is selfish, very arrogant, manipulative and controlling – eminently despicable. Their obsessive relationship is an unhealthy one – controlling, all-consuming and just not normal. (No, I did not view it as “true love”, one that was meant to be). The side characters, Luca and Abi, more than make up for this central plot. Both are very likeable and their story (with all its conflicts) is more relatable. (I would have liked the book more had these been the central characters).
Having said that, the last 100 pages or so, the story brings up an interesting twist, as finally the obsessed and blind-in-love Rosanna begins to see the consequences of their actions.. So there is some character development and Rosanna manages to redeem herself a bit. For me, it was the last 100 pages or so, which redeemed the book. The story begins in 1966 in Naples and ends in 1996. One thing that was noticeable was that there was no distinction between the time periods. But for the fact that the chapter says it is 1966, you would not have known. But then, more than the setting or the time period, this is a character-driven book. Luca, Abi, Carlotta (the sister whose later life is an exact contrast of Rosanna’s) are drawn with more depth and pathos than the main characters. While Rosanna’s character shows some growth, it is not the same for Roberto, who does realise his follies (or he says he does) but that does not come through.
Written as a letter to Nico (their son), Rosanna details her grand love story – from Naples to Milan, London, and New York. Riley is at her descriptive best as she paints the operatic world vividly through the eyes of this performer. The focus is the love story rather than their professional careers.
All in all, an easy, light, holiday read; though not as enthralling as The Midnight Rose (which has been her best work to-date.)