Thanks to Netgalley, Penguin Group USA and Viking USA for an arc to review!
I set out reading Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone expecting a completely different book than it turned out to be. What I expected was a light summer read set in Italy. Well, it was set in Italy and parts of the book take place in Italy but it’s far from what I expected.
Swimming to Elba deals with two girls, Anna and Francesca, who are best friends and live in the industrial town Piombino. They’re 13 years old and it’s the summer before they start high school. The girls look like complete opposites, Anna with dark curls and Francesca with straight blond hair, but they live their lives as if they are one and have done so ever since they were little kids. This will change once the start high school because Anna is the smart one of the two and she’ll attend a different high school than Francesca. However the girls are convinced they will remain best friends and are set on enjoying their last summer before venturing into this new life. It is this summer they have discovered the impact they and their bodies have on others so they start using their looks and newly discovered sexuality to tease boys and men around their town. Both their families are far from perfect, Francesca’s father Enrico beats his wife Rosa regularly, and does the same thing to Francesca especially because he doesn’t like his daughter showing of her body and getting involved with boys. Anna’s father works at the local steel factory but when he gets fired he starts to get involved in criminal activities and disappears from their family several times. The girls find support in each other and their friendship and always dream of getting away from their town, one of their dreams to get away is to swim to Elba, the luxurious island glistening in the sun, which they can see from their side of the beach. They also dream about getting older and finally being able to take part in the enticing adult and night life of their town, which includes parties, drugs and being able to get around on a Vespa when they turn 14.
Things take a turn for the worse however when Francesca realizes that she is in love with Anna, when she confesses her feelings, the first wedge in their friendship is created and soon after they fall out of touch completely when Anna falls in love with her brother’s friend Mattia, who is much older than she is. Both girls keep thinking about each other of and on though and both girls keep dreaming of escaping the worker’s apartments in Via Stalingrado and Piombino. Anna and Francesca soon start growing up way too fast, experiencing things they are not ready for yet. Anna by getting involved with Mattia and engaging in a sexual relationship and Francesca eventually by having to drop out of school and help out at home and by trying to follow her dreams of becoming famous and getting away, which has her ending up working in the sex industry.
Besides Anna and Francesca we also get the bleak stories of their parents, Anna’s brother Alessio and their friends and other people living in Piombino. Nobody seems to be really happy and everybody has to deal with their own problems.
The novel is written in a marvelous style, Avallone really transports you to the locations the novel takes place in with a lot of detail, while reading you can imagine every place in your head as watching a movie and in my opinion, if an author can do that in a way it doesn’t get repetitive or feel forced, they really know their craft. Even if you have never been to Italy and don’t know a single thing about the country, you will love the style of writing because it takes you to that wonderful country. If you know the country very well, you’ll be fascinated by all the things you recognize while reading; and if you only know the more glamorous parts of Italy, it will be quite a change to see this other part of the country.
I really liked the juxtaposing of Elba, the paradise where everything seems to be better to the girls from Via Stalingrado, and Piombino with its industrial bleakness. Elba is a symbol for all the dreams the girls, and probably other people in Piombino have, a whole other world, only a ferry ride away yet still so far away.
Swimming to Elba definitely leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling at certain points and while it only gets worse in that sense towards the end, the ending of the novel itself gives a bit of hope, hope that maybe it is possible to escape the life most people seem to be living in Piombino, maybe it is possible to make something of yourself and just maybe these girls will end up doing just that, maybe they’ll even do that because they experienced so many things in that one year, and grew up so fast.
To come back to the first sentence of my review, I’m glad that this novel was not what I expected it to be, I’m glad it was not just a summer read because while not an uplifting holiday read that you can read without really thinking, and while being a book that can make you uncomfortable at times, this is a novel you shouldn’t miss out on. It’s an outstanding coming of age story of two girls that are unsympathetic at times yet at other times you feel immensely sad for them and what they are going through. Moreover, the prose is simply astounding and I’ll be looking forward to reading more by Silvia Avallone.