Swimming to Elba, by Silvia Avallone. Published 2013 by Penguin.
When I was in school, I had an inseparable best friend. Like a lot of young girls do, we had some kind of a fight- I have no idea now what it was about- and she dumped me. I've missed her ever since. We got back in touch in our late 20s but then she dumped me again, and now and then when I see Facebook pictures of her with other friends of mine I feel a little hollow and sad, like a part of me is missing that can never be replaced. That's sort of what Silvia Avallone's European bestseller is about, an adolescent friendship that hits the skids and seems like it might never recover.
Set in a working-class Italy that tourists never see, Swimming to Elba tells the story of Anna and Francesca, two beautiful almost-14-year-olds on the cusp of everything- adulthood, sex, love and their forever-lives. They live in the same run-down building in Piombino, a Tuscan town that faces the resort island of Elba, where wealthy tourists frolic and play, but their town is no showpiece. Life in Piombino centers on the Lucchino steel mill and the via Stalingrado, where everyone in the town works and lives, including the girls' brothers, friends and boyfriends.
Anna and Francesca have been inseparable since they were little kids; each cannot imagine her life without the other, but as they enter this fraught period in their lives things change. They are maturing physically, attracting the attention of boys and men, and their minds turn to escape from their limited prospects. Anna's father Arturo is a wanna-be criminal who periodically abandons the family. Francesca's father is a miserable monster who beats her and her mother. And one of them has a secret, too. The shame each girl feels isolates her and drives each to bad relationships and self-destructive behavior. They try out other people like clothes but always reach for each other.
I really loved this book for its honesty and frankness when describing the difficult lives of these girls. I have seldom read a truer picture of teenage female friendship with all its complexities and games and mixed-up feelings. No light beach read, this book goes to some very dark places very quickly, and only barely recovers by the end. Although peppered with the joys of adolescence, it feels hopeless and grim most of the time. Slowly it becomes apparent that things aren't quite as bleak as they seem, and that escape might just be possible. I highly recommend this book with the caution that it contains pretty graphic material on domestic violence, drugs and sex. It would be an edgy book club choice and would doubtless prompt some great conversations. It's lead by compelling characters you'll care about and root for, and may even surprise you by the end.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.