"Swimming to Elba" by Silvia Avallone

Like her contemporary, Niccolo Ammaniti, Silvia Avallone does not paint the often cliched portrait of Tuscany with its rolling hills and vineyards. Avallone instead sets her story in a (former?) communist steel mill town and its residents are certainly not the “La Dolce Vita” types often found in novels set within the Tuscan landscape but instead poverty stricken, hard working, drug addicted, petty criminals, or just regular, working class folk struggling to make an existence for themselves that has meaning. The steel mill hovers over everything: it’s where nearly everyone in the town is employed, the council housing projects in which they live and the schools in which their children go to are built (Soviet style) specifically for them - but they so have the beach and it is here, along the shore, just across from the Island of Elba, where most, if not all of the town’s residents find some semblance of a life. 
The novel begins in the summer just prior to the events of September 11th. It is brutally hot, claustrophobic. The steel mill looms like a burning furnace in the background throughout. The surrounding area is neglected: abandoned portions of the mill, empty lots, etc. The whole atmosphere of the novel is immediately set from its first pages. The story initially focuses on two young women, the intelligent and daring Anna and her breathtakingly gorgeous best friend Francesca. The two girls are just about 14 and they find their lives beginning to change. Both of them cause quite a commotion among the young men in town - essentially the gritty town’s “celebrities” but they are only interested in one another, having grown up together and experienced everything together since they were two years old. Anna’s family is, like all the others in town, working poor. Her father is basically “absentee”, a shady character who’s contact with some shady characters are often eluded to. Francesca’s family are basically the same, but her father, Enzo, is a big, hulking over protective father who often beats the young Francesca for not acting the way he wishes her too. The two girls find solace in one another and take great pleasure in all the attention that they get from everyone in town. The two friends often speak of getting out of their run down town and becoming something, often talk about running off together to Elba, with its beach resorts and rich clientele, taunting them just off shore. Their life long friendship is on the verge of collapse, something that effects their lives in a way either one could have ever imagined. 
But the story isn’t solely about the two girls. It’s also about the other characters in the town - and there are many characters which populate this story. The girls‘ brothers, friends, parents, boyfriends - each one of these characters has their own story trajectory which propels this novel forth like a meteor and all told with a both sympathetic tone. We follow them through their hopes, dreams, desires, faults, bad decisions and we watch - and can feel - every emotion as if it were happening to you. You read this novel knowing these people and you become connected to their lives because in a lot of ways, you do know these people and can empathize with their plight and the feeling that their lot in life was handed to them by pure chance of birth. 
To get into the core of the story would be a disservice to those who haven’t read this wonderful novel by this amazingly talented new author. Avallone, with this one novel, has already left her mark as far as I’m concerned and has already joined the ranks of the plethora of great contemporary Italian authors emerging from “The Boot” in the last decade or so. Although the novel looks as if it’s marketed as a “Chick Lit” book (which might be a mistake here in America) this is far more dense and complex storytelling than one would find in that genre. This is not a “Chick Lit” novel, by any stretch of the imagination. Having said that, this does not mean it will not resonate with women in a very meaningful way. It will. The relationship between Anna and Francesca, which frames this story, is deeply emotional and complex as well, told with style and maturity. This is a novel that I think one must read and I can’t recommend this highly enough. Brilliant and wonderfully written. 
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