— One Italian Summer, by Rebecca Serle, Atria Books (2022)
One Italian Summer is a love letter to mothers, written through the lens of a grieving daughter. As the novel begins, thirty year-old Katy has just lost her mother, Carol, to cancer. Carol was the great “love of her life,” and Katy does not know who she is without her. Doubting everything, she leaves her marriage and heads to Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It was a trip she had planned to take with Carol, for whom Positano was “a special Mecca where she played before she became a wife and mother.” Now, Katy wants to see for herself what her mother loved “before she loved me.” But what Katy does not know yet is that this magical town will give Carol back to her, in the flesh — only, a thirty-year old version of her that Katy will befriend. By transforming what she thinks she knows about the woman who became her mother, Katy herself will get her life back.
Carol was the “best person alive” who (unlike Katy) seemed to know everything. But Katy is also angry, because “she made me in her image, but she forgot the most important part. She forgot that one day she’d leave, that she already had, and then I’d be left with nothing. When you’re just a reflection, what happens when the image vanishes?”
The novel is ultimately about how Katy’s friendship with her mother’s younger self forces a reckoning with her lack of agency in her own life. Thirty year-old Carol in Positano is quite unlike the older woman Katy knew. This Carol is free-spirited, playful, a woman dreaming of getting a job designing the interior of one of Positano’s most famous hotels. As Katy says, “I look at Carol now, a crisp white linen dress on, her sandals tied, ready to have the meeting of her dreams — and I don’t see my mother. I see a woman. A woman fresh into a new decade who wants a life of her own. Who has interests and desires and passions beyond my father and me. Who is very real, exactly as she is right here and now.” In recognizing her mother’s humanity — her fallibility and her individuality — Katy learns to forgive herself.
Even if Katy’s transformation does not move you, the descriptions of Positano and the surrounding Amalfi coast — not to mention the lavish food and wine descriptions — will make you want to pack up and head to Italy immediately. All is forgiven in this place. Lateness, unexpected kisses, tipsiness from too much wine and sun — all are chalked up to one phrase and a shrug of the shoulders: “It’s Italy.” The setting is like a character in itself, prodding the others into more authentic versions of themselves. It feels like a place out of time, which, as it turns out, it truly is. Much of the story is set in and around the Hotel Poseidon, a real place where the author herself stayed. It made such an impression on her that she decided to feature it in her book, alongside more well-known stops such as La Sireneuse, the Path of the Gods, La Tagliata, Chez Black, and San Pietro.
The setting lights up this novel despite some of its heavier themes. At the end, you will still feel sad — Katy does not, after all, escape the magnitude or the finality of her loss. You can feel her grief, how daunting and demanding it is. And yet, Katy finds herself ready to reconcile herself to the experience rather than flee it entirely, choosing to live the love and the loss rather than hide from that which cannot be ignored.
Originally from New York, Danielle Johnson is a writer and political scientist who has lived all over the world. She has a PhD in Politics from Oxford University and is writing her first novel. She lives in Shepherdstown with her husband, kids, and dog.By Danielle Johnson