One Italian Summer

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Rebecca Serle
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Mar. 2022)

This book was a bit of a bummer for me. I’ve seen some really excellent (and some not so excellent) reviews, so I was a bit on the fence, but impulsively decided to give it a go. The book did improve throughout, but I knew almost as soon as I started reading it that I wasn’t going to love it.
One Italian Summer tells the story of 30 year old Katy Silver, who has just lost her mother to cancer and has in turn, lost a piece of herself. Her Mom was her best friend and she doesn’t know how to move on without her. The two women were supposed to take a trip to Positano, Italy together, a place that was special to her mother Carol, but unfortunately she passes away before the trip and Katy decides to go to Italy alone to try and heal her broken heart. However, while in Positano, something magical happens and the 30 year old version of Carol stumbles into Katy’s holiday, bringing truths to light that Katy never realized about her mother.

It’s a book about love and grief, so I was ready for an emotional and moving read, but sadly, the writing style just didn’t work for me. I don’t want to totally slam on the book because I can see how some people might love this, Serle definitely crafts a very vivid portrayal of Italy in her writing, but the style was so straight forward and matter of fact that I was left feeling like I was reading a dull travel diary rather than the emotional, grief-stricken self discovery story that I was hoping for.

To put it simply, the writing is boring. Everything about this was a classic example of telling instead of showing. It’s overwritten and I thought we got so many details that were just unnecessary. If you’re looking for a good detailed itinerary of what to do in Positano, this is great, but I wanted to go on an emotional journey with Katy and that just wasn’t happening. I found it extremely hard to relate with Katy and the whole narrative was a bit insufferable. Everything about Positano is incredibly beautiful, from the scenery, to the sunsets, to the food, to the luxury hotels – so it’s hard to empathize with a bunch of faux-sad white people living a dream holiday. We’re told about Katy’s grief, but we don’t really experience it. 

It also comes down to Katy being a pretty unlikeable character. There’s nothing wrong with a good unlikeable character, but Katy is not intentionally unlikeable. I believe we’re supposed to like and empathize with her, but it’s very hard because she seems totally unaware of her privilege and it’s hard to buy that a 30-year old woman would be this out of touch with reality. One of the key themes is centered around how Katy and Carol are best friends and Katy’s discovery that, surprise, her mother actually had a life before and outside of her. She’s shocked by this 30 year old version of her mother and spends so much time in awe of the ways in which her mother is both the same and different. I’m sorry, but what 30 year old woman is unable to imagine that their mother might have had a vibrant life before them? Plus I thought the whole my-mom-is-my-best-friend thing was a little tired.

A lot of women love their moms and would consider them a best friend. But come on, mother-daughter friendships are still going to be based on a totally different foundation than peer-to-peer friendships and I would it extremely unrelatable that Katy didn’t have ANY friends outside of her Mom and husband. She mentions one girlfriend in passing, but as far as I can tell, she has no other friends, so that’s probably why she’s so shocked to find out that her mother actually had a life before her. So mostly Katy just read as juvenile and bit dense to me.
The one thing I did like about this book though was the exploration of the erasure of women through motherhood. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as more and more of my girlfriends have children. I’ve been noticing that some of my friends almost seem to disappear into motherhood. They’re still them, but all of their passions and interests have become secondary to that of being a mother. Their children become their number one priority and personality. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, I just personally find it very scary because I have a lot of things that I’m passionate about and the idea of losing or having to give up those things in motherhood is one of the primary reasons I delay it. Some people are able to find a good balance between being a mom and being a woman with your own dreams, but it seems it’s easy for who are before being a mother to get lost in the chaos of parenthood.

What Katy is grappling with more than anything is the loss of who she thought she was and the fear of having to suddenly be her own person. Her mom was a comfort to her because then she never had to think too hard and her suddenly realizing that her mother had her own hopes and dreams is scary for her. The realization that our parents can want things for themselves beyond the hopes and dreams they have for us. I don’t fault children for this, but it’s hard to watch a grown woman suddenly figuring this out.

The other issue I had with this book was with the romance. I won’t get into it to avoid spoilers, but I thought it was an interesting choice to give a married woman a love interest. We’re told Katy and her mother are best friends, but we’re not shown it. Likewise, we’re told at the beginning of the novel that things aren’t really working out between Katy and her husband, but we’re not told why and we’re definitely not shown it either. We’re just told that she’s so depressed over the loss of her mother that she has no interest in any of her other relationships, which is really only her marriage because she has no other friends.

Anyways, the only other thing I’ll say is that the book has a bit of a twist, which I thought was well done. I really should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. Unfortunately, none of the positives were really enough to outweigh the negatives and I wouldn’t recommend this book. But if you like it and Rebecca Serle’s writing, then all the more power to you! It did have some very evocative descriptions of Italy, but the writing style along with Katy’s immaturity make it a pass from me.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Author: Mark T. Sullivan
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017 on audiobook

Ugh, this book.

This is a challenge to rate because it really is a fascinating story that deserves to be told, but oh my god, the writing was brutal. I really wish this story could have been told by someone like Markus Zusak, Anthony Doerr, Kristen Hannah, or literally anyone who knows how to better write emotions and dialogue.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the fictional telling of Pino Lella’s true story. Lella is an 17 year old Italian from Milan who comes of age at the height of World War II. His parents send him out of Milan and he ends up guiding jews and other people looking to escape Italy through the snowy alps to neutral Switzerland. He does this until just before his 18th birthday, when his parents call him back to Milan and force him to enlist with the Germans to avoid being drafted to what would likely be sure death with the Italian Army. This is a huge source of shame for Pino and when he finds himself assigned to be the driver for German General Hans Leyers, he seizes the chance to redeem himself by turning spy for the Allies. Oh, and along the way he falls in love with this girl Ana.

This was an incredible true story, but the writing failed on so many levels for me. Disclaimer, this was my first audiobook, so it’s possible that maybe audiobooks are just not the right format for me, but I really think it’s the writing. First of all, the dialogue was awful – it didn’t feel at all natural. Secondly, it was not dynamic. I know this book is based on a true story, but it’s still supposed to be fiction. As an author you can take some liberties on a true story, to infuse emotion into the story and make it more palatable to your readers. Historical fiction writers do this all the time.

I think Sullivan should have just written a biography because this novel was way too precise. I felt like I was reading a boring chronology of Pino’s life. “Pino did this, and then he went here, and then he saw this, etc…” It was way too long and Sullivan tried to make every single event seem so intense, he spent so much time detailing each alpine crossing and everywhere Pino went as a driver. It was weird how precise he was with everything, even down to the specific distances Pino hiked and specific time he did something. I didn’t need to know how many metres Pino traversed for every part of his mountain crossings and I didn’t need to know where exactly he took General Leyers at 2, 4, and 6pm.

Sullivan conducted extensive interviews with Pino Lella and I felt like he didn’t give enough voice to the character and tried to stay too close to Lella’s story. Pino’s narrative felt like that of an 80 year old man recounting what happened to him during the war rather than that of a 17 year old actually living these experiences. This experience happened to Pino 70 years ago and I’m sure it was hard for him to articulate his emotions about it, which is where I had the biggest issue with Sullivan’s writing.

Sullivan didn’t know how to emote. Pino felt like the most basic character ever. He’s constantly talking about how he “feels”, but it had no depth for me. I think Sullivan should have taken a bit more liberty with the story to better connect with or imagine what Pino really would have felt. This book was an example of telling your audience instead of showing them. Sullivan obviously admires Pino (as do I), but it got in the way of his writing because Pino didn’t really have many flaws. I feel like Sullivan didn’t imagine what it would really have been like for Pino to enlist with the Nazis and the struggle he would have faced being shunned by his brother and best friend. Sure he was “sad” or “angry”, but his emotions were so basic and lacked depth.

This went for all the characters. Most upsetting for me was Ana. She had no personality whatsoever and her relationship with Pino was so romanticized. I mean, Pino was 18 at the time, so I could believe his fawning over her, but ugh, there were way too many descriptions of Pino being intoxicated by her “female scent”. Bletch. Seriously, what did Pino like about her besides her beauty? We never learn anything of substance about her except a quick flashback to her father’s tragic death.

But enough about the writing, on to the story: it was so heartbreaking! Pino was a busy teenager during the war and made a truly incredible contribution to the war. The synopsis gives no indication about the time Pino spent in the alps guiding refugees across the border, which I found even more fascinating than his spy work under General Leyers. It’s wild how many historical events he bore witness to and I really liked learning about Italy’s occupation. I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction about the camps and what it was like during the war in England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and even Hungary, but I’ve never read any WWII fiction about Italy.

The ending and epilogue were some of the most meaningful parts of the book for me. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there was one death (it’s war, there’s obviously going to be deaths) at the end of the story that was actually one of the most horrifying things I could ever imagine and I was extremely disturbed reading it. Honestly, everything about the end of the war in Italy was disturbing: the civil war in Milan, the revenge killings, the desecration of Mussolini’s body in the square. Death is so unpredictable and it was one thing that Sullivan did a good job of demonstrating towards the end of the book. 

Sullivan’s depiction of the aftermath of the war in Italy was also meaningful because it really showcased the hardships the people of Milan had experienced and their anger at the Nazis and the fascists. It’s a frightening look at the depravity of humans and how even after suffering so much, we can still want to see others suffer. Can revenge actually soothe your soul after bearing witness to so much pain? Pino was so detached emotionally at the end of the novel that I thought this was the one scene where Sullivan actually showed us his pain instead of just telling us about it. Pino was numb inside, so Sullivan stopped narrating his internal emotions and we were able to discern them from his actions rather than being told how he felt.

After finishing this book, I’m not surprised that Pino kept his experiences to himself. I don’t think him a coward, but I understand now why he thought himself one. He was shamed and shunned by a lot of people when he joined the Nazis and when he becomes a spy, he’s frustrated by not being able to share it with his family or Carletto and hates for them to think of him as a traitor Nazi. But to an extent, he was. He did join the Nazi party and it was only by fate that he ended up as a driver to Hans Leyers. I’m glad he was able to rebel under the Nazi regime and secretly fight against the Nazis, but the story could easily have gone another way if he had had no opportunity to fight for the Allies and ultimately, the winners.

But in a time of war we can’t know how things will turn out. Pino was young and not equipped for the situations he was put in. It’s impossible to predict how we will act and react in extreme situations and how the bounds of right and wrong can become blurred and confused by the people and events around you. I can see how Pino would be haunted by his experiences for the rest of his life and how war can really change the trajectory of your entire life and character.

I am very glad that Mark Sullivan has created a record of Pino’s life so that history will remember him, but don’t expect a well-written book.