Review: Flirting in Italian by Lauren Henderson

Flirting in Italian by Lauren Henderson. Delacorte Press, 2012. Currently available.

Genre: YA contemporary realistic fiction

Flirting-in-ItalianFace Value: Two cut-off bodies do not win this cover any points. The Vespa is charming, but that girl is wearing the weirdest outfit. I would be wary about wearing that skirt while straddling anything because…well…I guess I just prefer a little more coverage of my undercarriage. But I could forgive the skirt if she was wearing cute shoes. Instead, my eyes have to cope with the hideous combination of argyle socks and blue boots. Who styled this cover shoot? And what was the inspiration? Violet is a character who appreciates unique fashion, but her style isn’t described as anything close to what is represented in this picture.

Does it break the slate? Oh no. Not even close. The girls in this novel have the potential to be so confident and terrific, but they turn into pandering messes when a cute boy shows up. I was frustrated by the vacillating tendencies of the characters. One minute they had smart dialogue and lots of potential, and the next minute they were as shallow as a puddle. Every female character that made an appearance in this book was disappointing. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I just made a list of all of the female characters and each one was a broadly drawn stereotype.

Who would we give it to? I think that the cover and the setting would appeal to fans of Anna and the French Kiss, but ultimately they would be left unsatisfied. Put this book back on the shelf and find some other great YA European adventure realistic fiction to give. 13 Little Blue Envelopes would be an excellent alternative.

Review: Snow covered the ground of my Wisconsin home this weekend, and then rapidly turned into gross and icy slush that made driving dangerous. It is during weather like this that I long to read about carefree young women gallivanting around Europe. I’ve been reading a great deal of journal articles and research related material at work, and my leisure reading has been full of fantasy worlds. I needed some excellent realistic fiction to cleanse my palate. Sadly, Flirting in Italian did not do the job.

This book started out with so much promise. Violet, a devoted student of art history, sees an old Italian portrait in an art museum. The subject of the portrait could be her twin. She digs up as much information as she can about the origin of the painting and decides that she has to investigate. In order to pursue her curiosity, she finds a summer study abroad program in Chianti and flies off to Italy for some once-in-a-lifetime adventures.

The unfortunate caricatures of women start before Violet leaves for Europe. Her mother is so attached to Violet that she has a hysterical breakdown in the airport, because Violet’s summer in Europe will be the first significant amount of time that they have spent apart. The scene is not only embarrassing for Violet, it’s embarrassing for the reader. Violet then meets the other girls who will be joining her for the study abroad program. She forms initial judgments of the other girls that are eventually proven wrong. Although Henderson tries very hard to make it seem like Violet is learning and growing from her encounters with these other girls, there is so much narrative time spent describing their bodies, makeup, and clothing that it seems like Violet is obsessed with appearances. Violet is constantly commenting on the way that two of the girls dress to complement their athletic bodies, and then speaking about how the third, more studious girl selects items to look “slimming.” So she’s basically pointing out that the “nerdy” girl is bigger than the others. It bothered me every single time.

Any redeeming qualities for these young female characters fall apart when they start interacting with the Italian boys. They swoon, they giggle, and they resort to aggressive flirting to get attention. The girls momentarily unite against boys who wrong them and then split up into factions again if they compete for boys’ attention. I found it exhausting.

Perhaps if the plot focused more on Italian adventures and the exploration of the mysterious portrait resemblance, I would have been able to find some redeeming qualities in this book. But the plot is left dangling for a sequel, and some of the twists in the story felt overly dramatic.

My overwhelming disappointment from this book doesn’t stem from the shallow characters or melodramatic plot. I am so sad that a storyline with such potential – a young woman searching for her family history and strengthening her personal identity while on her own for the first time – was squandered.

Reviewed from library copy.

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