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