cover image Swimming to Elba

Swimming to Elba

Silvia Avallone, trans. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar. Viking, $25.95 (308 p) ISBN 978-0-670-02358-5

Avallone's engaging debut novel explores the troubled friendship of two sexually precocious young girls, "thirteen going on fourteen," in the dead-end Italian town of Piombino, where the kids who don't escape often end up toiling at the local Lucchini steel plant. The author deftly captures the miserable home life of Francesca Morganti, the prettiest girl on the Via Stalingrado, whose father, Enrico, beats her and her defeated mother, Rosa. Francesca is in love with her best friend, Anna Sorrentino, who lives one floor up with her overprotective brother, Alessio; her Communist mother, Sandra; and her shady father, Arturo; who disappears for months at a time and returns with armfuls of gifts. Together, the girls dream of making it to Elba, the lush island just a short boat ride away from their constrictive coastal town. But a schism in their relationship is wrought by the arrival of Alessio's friend, Mattia, who's a good 10 years older than the girls and soon captures Anna's attention. Without Anna's friendship, Francesca withers under the rule of her abusive father, and begins to relinquish herself to a bleak future. Avallone does a good job of capturing the intensity of life-long female friendship and concomitant jealousies. Misfortunes pile up in the wake of the girls' absence from one another's lives, and while the central problem is eventually resolved, a handful of lesser plotlines are left dangling. (June)