I decided to read this book because a friend of mine wrote a blog post dream-casting the movie adaptation, and it sounded like brain candy. Everyone needs brain candy sometimes, right? There are lots of problems with candy, though, and so too this novel. It’s basically a dressed-up romance novel with all the schmoopy writing and dialogue, a fair amount of sex (though not particularly well-written) and not much in the way of interesting character development or even sympathetic characters. The “mystery” at the heart of the novel isn’t much either; half of it is easily solved, and the other half offers no clues whatsoever. But, if you’re looking for something relatively mindless with which to pass the time, you could probably do much worse than this.
Alba Arbuckle (oy) is a spoiled playgirl who doesn’t work, spends all of her money on clothes, and is so beautiful as to have men at her feet wherever she goes. She’s got a distant but doting father, an “evil stepmother,” and a mysterious, Italian mother for whom the houseboat on which she lives is named. When Alba discovers a portrait of her mother, Valentina, drawn by her father, she decides it’s high time she went in search of her roots. To do this, she disrupts and upsets her family, enlists the help of a poor sap literary agent named Fitz who is in love with her (apparently he finds her brattiness charming?), and eventually sets off for Italy to find out about her mother’s life and death. Along the way, I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn, she finds herself.
Seriously, Alba is one of the worst heroines I’ve ever come across. Everything she does is for herself, and everything that doesn’t go her way is clearly done with malice, to ruin her life. She’s twenty-six going on fifteen. Her cast of supporting characters are painted in such broad strokes, perhaps to make her seem more interesting?, so as to be hardly worth mention. Montefiore is going for a sort of “English values” vs. “Italian passion” idea, but her stolid English types come off as stodgy and boring, and her passionate Italians just come off as annoying. While Alba learns to embrace both sides of her heritage, her transformation is so hurried and so rote that there’s no journey to be witnessed, no soul-searching or realizations. One minute spoiled brat, the next, lovely human being.
The novel is two stories entwined: Alba’s own story, and that of her parents, told in flashback. The structure of the novel works fine, and I do think that it could actually be made into a creditable movie (although I disagree with most of my friend’s casting choices). As a novel, though, it’s strictly treacle. The language is truly florid and ridiculous. Everyone either is (or was) devastatingly gorgeous or grotesquely unattractive. All of the plot points get neatly tied up with a bow at the end, except for the love story between Alba and Fitz, which gets built up for a while but then unceremoniously dumped. It turns out that even though Alba has “changed,” she’s still going to get her own way, and the truest love extant in the novel is that of Alba for herself. What a beautiful thing.