Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: The Girl From the Paradise Ballroom by Alison Love

If you wanted to escape something, what would it be? Would it be your native country and the lack of opportunities there? Would it be the stultifying, unpromising ordinariness of your life? Would it be conventional society? Each of the major characters in Alison Love's novel, The Girl From the Paradise Ballroom, is trying to escape something and make a better, more suitable life for themselves in this historical tale of love and loss just as the world goes crazy heading into war.

Opening in 1940 with the arrest of Antonio Trombetta, the novel quickly moves back in time to 1937 to the root of the troubles that precipitated his arrest. Antonio is the oldest son of an Italian immigrant family. He's married and has a baby on the way. He works at his family's kiosk during the day and sings at clubs at night. His younger brother, father, and even his young wife are all intrigued by Fascism and support the rise of Mussolini from afar and to varying degrees. Antonio just wants to be able to work hard to make a better life for his family without having to declare an allegiance to a political belief he does not hold.

Olivia Johnson is a dancer at one of the clubs Antonio sings at one night and he is inexplicably drawn to her as he watches her dance. When he comes across her in a vulnerable moment, the two of them are bonded by that moment and the knowledge of it forever. The next time he sees her, several months later, Olivia has met and married Bernard, a wealthy patron of the arts who takes the talented Antonio under his wing as a protegee. As Olivia and Antonio are thrown together, they form a sort of friendship rife with undercurrents of more. But as they each try to invent themselves as they want to be, World War II is heating up. Britain starts rounding up enemy aliens to send them to internment camps and everyone waits to see which side of the war Mussolini will choose to align Italy with and how that will affect Italian immigrants like Antonio.

Capturing the steeply rising prejudice of the British against Italians, the continued disparities of class, and the question of selfhood in marriage, Love has taken a different tack from many WWII novels. Both Antonio and Olivia are outsiders in their respective worlds. He has no wish to declare a political affiliation or for repatriation to Italy, unlike so many others in his community. She comes from a middling upbringing that prepares her in no way for the upper crust life into which she marries. And husband Bernard, after the initial joy in her inferior beginnings and difference from the women of his own class, wants her to conform to that which he was rebelling against, wants her to change into a woman she never was. They are not the only outsiders in the narrative though. Filomena, Antonio's sister, is walking out with a British police officer, falling in love with him, as he is with her, a situation that would scandalize the community if it was known. This outsider status is isolating in so many ways and none of these characters has the luxury of confiding the whole of their hearts to anyone else. The reader is privy to all of their hearts though, through the rotating narration. Interestingly, even seeing the events from multiple perspectives, the love story between Antonio and Olivia doesn't quite come together as something wonderful, fated, and inescapably romantic. Rather it seems a shared refuge from loneliness and the unhappiness of the lives they are leading. Although the novel is set during the war and all of the characters live in London, the actual reality of the war is quite distant until Antonio is arrested. As a story, it was indeed sad; so many of the characters in it were trying to escape to something happier and yet they didn't achieve all they hoped for. So beware the ending that tries to rectify too much. But those people who enjoy historical novels, especially stories that shine a light on a lesser known bit of history like this one does on the lives of Italians in London at the time, will find their curiousity piqued here. Ultimately, the dual pulls of love and loyalty, to family, to country, and to self, make this a poignant and interesting read.

For more information about Alison Love, take a look at her publisher's author page or follow her on Twitter. Check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

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