Book Review: One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle

Title: One Italian Summer
Author: Rebecca Serle
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: March 1, 2022
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When Katy’s mother dies, she is left reeling. Carol wasn’t just Katy’s mom, but her best friend and first phone call. She had all the answers and now, when Katy needs her the most, she is gone. To make matters worse, their planned mother-daughter trip of a lifetime looms: two weeks in Positano, the magical town Carol spent the summer right before she met Katy’s father. Katy has been waiting years for Carol to take her, and now she is faced with embarking on the adventure alone.

But as soon as she steps foot on the Amalfi Coast, Katy begins to feel her mother’s spirit. Buoyed by the stunning waters, beautiful cliffsides, delightful residents, and, of course, delectable food, Katy feels herself coming back to life.

And then Carol appears—in the flesh, healthy, sun-tanned, and thirty years old. Katy doesn’t understand what is happening, or how—all she can focus on is that she has somehow, impossibly, gotten her mother back. Over the course of one Italian summer, Katy gets to know Carol, not as her mother, but as the young woman before her. She is not exactly who Katy imagined she might be, however, and soon Katy must reconcile the mother who knew everything with the young woman who does not yet have a clue.

When Katy’s mother dies, Katy is wrecked — which is completely to be expected. She reflects on how her mother was her person, the one she turned to for everything, who knew her better than anyone.

My mother, you see, is the great love of my life. She is the great love of my life, and I have lost her.

Beyond that, she also relied on her mother for everything, even as an adult. Carol knew how to do everything well — cooking, decorating, planning, socializing, running a life — and as Katy acknowledges to herself throughout the book, because she had Carol at the center of her life, she never really learned how to do much of anything without her.

How could she do this to me? How could she tell me year over year that it was okay, that I didn’t need to know, that I didn’t need to have all the answers, because I had her? How could she make herself so indispensible, so much a part of my life, my very heart — so woven into the fabric of who I am — only to leave? Didn’t she know? Didn’t she know that one day I’d be left without her?

This is problematic in a lot of ways, not least because Katy has been married for years. She and Eric met and fell in love in college, got married, and bought a house just 15 minutes away from Katy’s parents. Carol’s advice and involvement has been central to their marriage as well. Katy just doesn’t know who she is without her mother, and in the months leading up to Carol’s death, everything falls apart, to the point that Katy tells Eric that she’s done with their marriage.

Going to Italy on what was supposed to be the ultimate mother-daughter trip, mere weeks after Carol’s death, is an emotionally momentous undertaking for Katy. They’d always dreamed of going together, so Carol could show Katy the place that meant so much to her as a young woman. Arriving on her own, Katy is immediately wowed by the beauty of Positano, and settles in to soak up the surroundings and try to create one more connection with her mother.

But as the synopsis says, as Katy sets out the next day, she meets a woman in the hotel lobby who is all too familiar: It’s Carol, at age 30 — living in Positano, carefree, beautiful, and without a clue as to Katy’s identity. Once she recovers from the shock, Katy is determined to take this strange opportunity to know her mother in a whole new way, and the women strike up a friendship.

Meanwhile, Katy also explores Positano, meeting people, experiencing the sun, the food, and the sea, and developing a connection to an attractive man she meets at her hotel. As the days pass, she balances her time with Carol and Adam, and delves deeper into her own feelings about where she is in her life and what might come next.

That’s a lot of synopsis, so I’ll hit pause and share some thoughts.

There’s a lot to love about One Italian Summer… and seriously, where do I sign up for this exact trip to Italy? I want to stay in that specific hotel, meet those people, eat that food, go to those beaches. Now. It all sounds incredibly gorgeous and delicious and amazing.

But…

I have a lot of “buts” about this book.

Carol and Katy’s mother-daughter relationship is beautiful in many ways. They love each other and are completely devoted to one another, and that’s lovely. But the more we learn, the less healthy it seems. Carol is too central to Katy’s life — everything she has or does seems connected back to Carol in some way, and even her marriage to Eric keeps Katy’s parents, especially Carol, firmly at its center. Even small-ish things, like why they never actually cook — it’s because their home-cooked meals always happen at Carol’s house, and Carol never taught anyone in her life, Katy or her own husband, to manage without her.

Now, as for central concept of this novel, in which Katy encounters Carol as a younger woman…

There are hints (like the selection of books on the hotel’s shelves) that Katy is somehow spending time 30 years in the past, but it takes her an awfully long time to figure that part out. She just accepts Carol’s presence and doesn’t think much further about it, although it’s pretty obvious to the reader. (Aha, so that’s why Adam has never heard of the movie Jurassic Park and she can’t reach Eric when she tries to call him!)

Katy just accepts that she’ll be able to spend time with Carol as a gift, and that’s that. Yet, Carol has her own life in Positano, which means that Katy has plenty of time on her own too. She follows the itinerary that real-world Carol created for the two of them and connects to her mother’s memory through what she experiences, but she also has plenty of time for Adam.

Spoilers ahead! Does it count as cheating if it happens 30 years in the past in a weird alternate pocket of time? I’d say yes, but it doesn’t seem to trouble Katy all that much. And it’s not at all clear whether what happens during this Italian vacation will carry through to Katy’s present. Is there a man out there who has memories of the young woman he had a fling with in Italy all those years earlier?

Beyond the Adam storyline — well, it’s nice that Katy gets both closure and a new perspective on who her mother was. As she spends time with young Carol, she learns new facts about her mother’s life that she’d never known, and also has time to understand that Carol always had parts of her life that didn’t revolve around Katy.

In some ways, it’s a moving look at loss and grieving, and how the loss of a loved one can force someone to take a fresh look at everything in their life. There are some moments of reflection that I found startlingly real and emotionally honest.

But…

Bottom line, this book makes no sense. I can’t go with a storyline that takes place “because magic” without any explanation whatsoever. Why is Katy experiencing this time 30 years in the past? How is she able to be there? Why did it start and why did it end?

Your guess is as good as mine. There’s no explanation. And I can’t just shrug and accept it as just the way things happened — not when it’s clear that this wasn’t a dream state or alternate reality or coma-dream or even a time slip in the fabric of the world. It just happens, and then it stops, and Katy just accepts it all.

On a more positive note, the author has a lovely way with words, bringing tastes and sounds and smells to life quite vividly. The Italy of Katy’s visit is beautifully described and presented — it’s an immersive experience just reading about it.

I’ve enjoyed Rebecca Serle’s two other books for adults (The Dinner List and In Five Years), although even in both of these, there’s a magical element that happens to advance the plot but has no real explanation. Somehow, this aspect bothered me much more in One Italian Summer than it did in the other books.

Overall, there are a lot of enjoyable aspects to this book, but the plot holes kept me from fully engaging. On top of that, what I initially felt was an incredibly beautiful mother-daughter relationship was revealed to be less healthy than I first imagined, and that left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. Still, it’s a quick and often emotionally engaging read, and I do appreciate the author’s ability to cast a spell with her writing. I’ll look forward to whatever she writes next.

Audiobook Review: This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith

Title: This Close to Okay
Author: Leesa Cross-Smith
Narrators: Kamali Minter, Zeno Robinson
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: February 2, 2021
Print length: 311 pages
Audiobook length: 9 hours, 46 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the award-winning Southern writer who Roxane Gay calls “a consummate storyteller” comes a cathartic novel about the life-changing weekend shared between two strangers: a therapist and the man she prevents from ending his life.

On a rainy October night in Kentucky, recently divorced therapist Tallie Clark is on her way home from work when she spots a man precariously standing on the side of a bridge. Without a second thought, Tallie pulls over and jumps out of the car into the pouring rain. She convinces the man to join her for a cup of coffee, and he eventually agrees to come back to her house, where he finally shares his name: Emmett.

Over the course of the emotionally charged weekend that follows, Tallie makes it her mission to provide a safe space for Emmett, though she hesitates to confess that this is also her day job. But what she doesn’t realize is that he’s not the only one who needs healing — and she’s not the only one with secrets.

Alternating between Tallie and Emmett’s perspectives as they inch closer to the truth of what brought Emmett to the bridge’s edge — as well as the hard truths Tallie has been grappling with in her own life — This Close to Okay is a vibrant, powerful story of two strangers brought together by wild chance at the moment they needed each other most.

In this moving, surprising, dual-narrator novel, we meet two damaged souls who find solace and hope through their accidental meeting.

When Tallie sees a man poised to jump off a bridge, she immediately tries to intervene, gently using her words and music to encourage him back from the brink, then continuing to provide companionship and support in the hours and days that follow. She doesn’t approach Emmett as a therapist, although she is one — instead, she offers caring and compassion, as well as shelter and a safe space.

Over the course of their time together, each slowly opens up to the other, but at their own pace, and keeping secrets even while sharing hopes, fears, and past hurts. They each also cross boundaries, aware of infringing on the other’s privacy but somehow justifying this through good intentions.

The book shifts point-of-view between Tallie and Emmett, and through their alternating chapters, we learn about the events in their lives that brought them both to this particular moment. Each has been through hurts and suffering, and while Tallie shares the pain of her husband’s betrayal and subsequent divorce, Emmett keeps his past largely to himself, hiding the source of his desperation and suicidal impulses, and even hiding his true identity.

The beauty of This Close to Okay is in getting to know these complex characters and seeing how the different struggles in their lives have contributed to where they are as the story opens. It’s lovely to see their interactions and how they each affect the other in deep and meaningful ways. The story is not action-packed — it’s really about the characters and how they connect, and that’s probably why it resonates on such an emotional level.

Sure, there are some elements that I could quibble with. Tallie takes a huge risk by bringing Emmett into her life and into her home, and it’s hard to believe that a modern woman in this day and age would potentially compromise her own safety in such a dramatic way. Yes, Emmett is trustworthy and respectful and safe, but she really couldn’t have known that up front, could she? Likewise, I have a bone to pick with Tallie’s decision to not share with Emmett that she’s a therapist. She knows that her professional obligation toward an official client would be to refer him for treatment and report an attempted suicide, but she rationalizes that Emmett is not her client as part of her decision to just spend time with him and offer him a place to rest and regroup. She has compassionate impulses, and since this is a novel, it all works out, but looking in from the outside, this feels like a very risky and unprofessional path to take.

The audiobook made for a great listening experience. I appreciated the expressiveness of the two narrators and how they voiced the characters and the more interior moments. I did struggle a bit with the male narrator’s lower vocal register, which made it hard for me to catch all the words clearly, but that may be more about my own hearing than the actual narration!

Overall, I did love This Close to Okay. Despite my disagreement with some of the plot points, I was completely caught up in the story, and felt my heart break over and over again as more is revealed about Emmett’s painful past. I will say as well that I was pleasantly surprised that this book does not fall into the common romantic tropes that pop up so often in contemporary fiction. The characters’ development and well-being is the point, and the plot supports this very well without making romantic entanglement the dominant focus.

Side note: I always love when fictional characters are revealed to share some of my geeky loves… so when Tallie pulls her copy of Prisoner of Azkaban off the shelf to read to Emmett, I just about swooned!

This Close to Okay is a moving story about two sympathetic people, and I truly enjoyed getting to know each of them. By the end, I felt very invested in their lives, and loved how beautifully the author conveyed their journeys.

Highly recommended!

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Book Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry

Title: Beach Read
Author: Emily Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 19, 2020
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.

They’re polar opposites.

In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really. 

Sometimes you pick up a book and it’s exactly what you need in that moment. And for me, Beach Read was it this week — as evidenced by the fact that I read it in about a day and a half, ignoring the real-world obligations nagging for my attention.

Beach Read is sweet and uplifting, but also a little heavier than you might guess from the title and the cover.

Main character January is a young, successful romance writer. She’s known for her swoony love stories and happy ending. However, she’s been thrown for a loop, and isn’t able to summon her inner belief in the power of true love — and her looming book deadline isn’t helping at all.

January’s father recently died, so she’s dealing with the loss of her incredible dad — but on top of that, at his funeral, she met That Woman. It turns out that her father had an on-again, off-again mistress for years, including during her mother’s battle with cancer. January is shattered and angry, and feels like her foundation has been swept out from under her. After all, it was her parent’s shining love story that taught her to believe in love-story-quality love — and if that was all a lie, then what is she supposed to believe? And how can she possibly write a believable love story when she’s not sure her heart will ever be in it again?

January’s father left her a beach-side bungalow in a small-town in Michigan. With her book deadline looming and a serious lack of funds, she decides to spend her summer writing at the cottage, while also cleaning, sorting, and getting it ready for sale. And the fact that this was her father’s place with That Woman is not helping in the slightest.

Also distracting is her next door neightbor, who turns out to be the revered young writer Augustus Everett — whom January knew as Gus back in their college days, when they were fierce competitors, and shared one steamy “almost” at a party.

As January and Gus reconnect, initially with resentment and animosity, they realize they’re in the same boat when it comes to lack of inspiration and dire writer’s block. Gus is battling his own inner demons and past hurts, and he can’t seem to make progress on his next book.

In the book’s central (cute) twist, they challenge each other to write each other’s genres. Gus has always mocked January’s belief in the HEA — now, he needs to find a way to see the possibility of happiness, rather than going for the gloomy conclusion. And January needs to be open to grim reality and the idea that love isn’t always perfect, that messiness and secrets and hard choices are parts of life, and that fairy tales never (rarely) come true.

Beach Read is so much fun, start to finish, but it’s not only sunshine and swooning. (But yes, there is swoon-worthy romance, to be sure.) The author has a lot to say about families and love, how the ideals of childhood can be tarnished by the realities of adulthood, how families can hurt one another but can also save one another in all sorts of different ways… and how true love doesn’t mean no one ever makes a mistakes or hurts the other person, and that sometimes love takes work, compromise, and second chances.

January and Gus have a great chemistry together, and I loved the scenes of them writing in their respective cottages, but communicating through notes held up to the window. It’s adorable — so much better than texting!

The small-town setting is charming, and there’s a wonderful bookstore, so that’s a plus! One of the central plot elements of the book is Gus and January’s series of field trips/dates, where each exposes the other to something that feels related to their own writing style and genre. So, line dancing alternates with going to the site of a tragic fire at a cult compound… and all their excursions bring them closer to each other and also give them each different insights into their own process and emotions.

The writing is cheerful and light, but the author doesn’t shy away from harder emotions. January and Gus both have baggage to deal with, and we do see their pain and confusion as they deal with the events in their lives and try to move forward.

Bonus points too for a terrific female friendship, which helps January realize that true love can also be the bond between two lifelong friends who have each other’s backs and love unconditionally.

Falling’s the part that takes your breath away. It’s the part when you can’t believe the person standing in front of you both exists and happened to wander into your path. It’s supposed to make you feel lucky to be alive, exactly when and where you are.

Beach Read is a wonderful depiction of falling in love, but also a moving exploration of the messiness that comes with growing up and facing real life and accepting the fact that parents aren’t always perfect.

As I mentioned at the start, this book came into my hands right when I needed it, and I enjoyed every minute. A great summer reading choice — and also a great way to escape our current isolation through fiction!

Book Review: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

Title: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this next captivating love story from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of One Day in December, a young woman is reunited with her late fiancé in a parallel life. But is this happy ending the one she really wants?

Lydia and Freddie. Freddie and Lydia. They’d been together for more than a decade, and Lydia thought their love was indestructible.

But she was wrong. On her twenty-eighth birthday, Freddie died in a car accident.

So now it’s just Lydia, and all she wants to do is hide indoors and sob until her eyes fall out. But Lydia knows that Freddie would want her to try to live fully, happily, even without him. So, enlisting the help of his best friend, Jonah, and her sister, Elle, she takes her first tentative steps into the world, open to life–and perhaps even love–again.

But then something inexplicable happens that gives her another chance at her old life with Freddie. A life where none of the tragic events of the past few months have happened.

Lydia is pulled again and again across the doorway of her past, living two lives, impossibly, at once. But there’s an emotional toll to returning to a world where Freddie, alive, still owns her heart. Because there’s someone in her new life, her real life, who wants her to stay.

Written with Josie Silver’s trademark warmth and wit, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird is a powerful and thrilling love story about the what-ifs that arise at life’s crossroads, and what happens when one woman is given a miraculous chance to answer them.

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird starts with tragedy. Driving to Lydia’s birthday dinner, Freddie is in a car accident that takes his life. Lydia’s world is destroyed. She and Freddie, engaged to be married, have been together for over ten years, really ever since meeting as teens. He was her first and only love… and then suddenly, he was gone.

Lydia is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered world, and where this book excels is in its depiction of grief and loss. Lydia’s pain is not pretty or dignified — she’s a mess, and she remains a mess for a long, long time. Grief doesn’t have a timetable. There’s no quick fix or set number of months that the mourning should take. Lydia simply has to go through it, and fortunately, she has an incredibly giving and loving sister by her side every step of the way.

Lydia also has a secret: The unusual pink pills that her mother gave her to help her sleep have a decidedly odd effect: When she takes a pill and falls asleep, Lydia is pulled into a different version of her own life, one in which the accident never happened and Freddie is very much alive. Soon, Lydia is torn between her bleak waking world and the promise of escape into a world that she knows can’t be real — but it’s a world where she gets time with Freddie, gets to plan their wedding and enjoy their promised life together.

Thankfully, there’s no hint that this alternate world is a real option for Lydia. Even while experiencing this time with Freddie, she’s fully aware of what’s happened in her real life, so all the happy moments are overshadowed for her by the knowledge that Freddie isn’t really alive in her world.

Meanwhile, we spend much more time with Lydia in her waking life than asleep, which I appreciated. She has no choice but to begin the long, slow road forward without Freddie, finding a way to keep going without the love of her life.

There’s a lot to like about this book:

  • Lydia has a meaningful and rewarding job working in a community center, which hits very close to home for me and really warmed my heart. It’s refreshing to read about someone with a job that’s important but not at all corporate — a job that’s all about creating programming for the community to bring joy to other people.
  • Her mother is odd, but still supportive, and her sister Elle is the absolute best. She and her husband have Lydia’s back, fuss over her a lot, but also give her space to figure out her own life.
  • Unlike some other books I’ve read, at no point does anything negative about Freddie come to light. I’ve read too many versions of stories where the dearly departed turns out to be somewhat of an ass or a liar or in some other way not really worth the tears. Nope, not here. Even though Lydia eventually becomes open to the possibility of love again, there’s never any doubt that had Freddie lived, they would have had a happy life together.

Of course, I had some quibbles as well:

(And I suppose I should say… some of these are a little bit spoilery…)

  • The sci-fi geek in me (never too far below the surface) wants to know what was in those pink pills! Even though Lydia eventually acknowledges that maybe it was the pills and maybe it was just her brain’s way of helping her deal with her loss, my sci-fi brain wanted a real explanation! Was she in an alternate reality? Was it all in her mind? If it was all in her mind, I have to say, it was a very neatly constructed and chronologically sound set of delusions. (I would have preferred either no alternate reality story, or one that actually happens in a fully fleshed out way — again, sci-fi geek here!)
  • When Lydia picks herself up and goes off to Croatia on a moment’s notice, then stays there for nine weeks to rest and recuperate and find herself, I just could not suspend my disbelief. She goes off with no plan, happens to be approached by a cab driver who happens to have a seaside restaurant and room to rent with his wife, who happens to be smart and supportive and exactly what Lydia needs. Really? What are the odds? Because I’m willing to bet that in real life, the tourist showing up at an airport in a foreign country and trusting someone to drive her to a remote place with no hesitation… is maybe not going to return in one piece. Honestly, this piece of the story made no sense to me.
  • I’m really glad that Lydia grew and changed over the course of the book, which covers close to two years in her life — but part of how I was aware of how much she’d changed was by her constantly thinking about how much she’d changed. Um… show, don’t tell?

Quibbles, aside, I did actually enjoy this book very much, and especially appreciated how well the author conveyed Lydia’s suffering and the emotional rollercoaster she experiences during her mourning process.

You don’t get over losing someone you love in six months or two years or twenty, but you do have to find a way to carry on living without feeling as if everything that comes afterward is second best.

Lydia is flawed and human and feels real. She’s miserable and sad until, eventually, she learns to also start feeling happy again, although in a different way than before. I really liked her as a person, and felt that her journey never sugarcoated the pain of her huge loss. At some point, she finds new ways to participate in life, with her family and friends and work, and it’s pretty glorious to see Lydia find hope again after it all seems gone.

I guess I could have lived without the alternate world pieces of the story, but overall, I liked The Two Lives of Lydia Bird very much, and would happily recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly different take on love and finding meaning in life.