Honestly, I’m sad I didn’t like this as much as I thought I would. Seriously, I’ve given it the lowest rating of the year so far. I bought it in one of my bulk buys at the 2011 Boston Book festival and haven’t thought of it since. It came up on my list when I used random.org to select my next book.
Even though I finished it, I just could not invest in this book, and that’s never a good sign. It started off slow, and thankfully did pick up a good bit, but still finished slow. Seriously go read the paragraph long sentence that was the final sentence of the novel. Not fun.
I think where I struggled to enjoy the book and where the author struggled to write the book was in converting an excellent idea into a manageable and digestible amount. Thankfully, the book wasn’t longer, but it really struggled through the first half. Beth felt like a whiny idiot (she was a teenager) and Cesare just felt frigid and unapproachable. This definitely changed toward the end, but it didn’t change fast enough or thoroughly enough to make me want to bump up my rating.
In addition to the struggling with the writing, I felt the premise of the novel was forced and too rigid. From the 9-11 deaths to the rich-kid traveling across Europe, the story was full of tropes and archetypes that McPhee could’ve recreated or at least reconditioned. I read this review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the difference of opinions with mine baffled me!
The things the reviewer likes (Beth’s freedom, the first love, her spouting of philosophical thoughts beyond her years) are the exact things that drove me crazy about the novel. No one wants an uppity teenage protagonist, especially not one that’s so privileged she’s fighting both her own upbringing and trying to get someone else to rebel against theirs!
Recommendation: I’d pass. Even though there were some beautiful passages like,
“The day has begun. Soon they will be on the familiar road and this, too, will be incorporated, kneaded into the fold, worked and processed like sea glass found on the beach made smooth with time, by the endless repetition of rolling against sand in the waves.” (293)
the majority if the book felt like a struggle to read. And that’s hard saying that when toward the end of the novel the protagonist started writing cookbooks and books with incidental recipes (a la Under the Tuscan Sun – which McPhee (or a character) trashed) and we all know I love books that feature other books.
Opening Line: “Above the party a beautiful young man rises into a cloud.”
Closing Line: “He rises from the velvet chair to the day that will carry him on and away from this with nothing and everything changed, carry him through the same patterns of remembering, of working in his bank, coming up with and supporting new ideas for socks and feet, of dreaming another destiny, of reprimanding and adoring his child and being impatient and loving with his wife, of trying to tame fear with a laugh, of drinking his aperitif in town before dinner on a carless cobbled street filled with shoppers buying their bread and their pastries packaged in waxed paper with bows, greeting each other with smiles and stories of their tangled dramas as they have for so many years and generations, same as they do everywhere, ordinary people engaged in ordinary lives that amount to everything.” (Whited out.)
Additional Quotes from L’America by Martha McPhee
“Love is a victory over time. Love steals from death. The illusion of immortality for an instant blooms, a beautiful flower, and everything that is here is here and all that is, truly is.” (39)
“She liked Cesare just a little more already simply because he was a reader. Their enthusiasm for literature is too banal to describe beyond the rush that such a connection triggers, a sense of sharing something big, important yet undefined—a vocabulary, if not a language, of their own.” (102)
“She wanted him to prove that his desire to construct his own life, separate from the life being handed to him by his family, was authentic. It was a test of sorts, and he knew that as well.” (111)