Every now and again when looking through up and coming release catalogues, I come across a book that makes me excited beyond belief. It’s usually a contemporary romance book or else a thriller that I’ve had my eye on, although my taste is extending beyond these genres to fantasy and sci-fi as of late. Belladonna by Anbara Salam, a contemporary novel, jumped out at me immediately. A coming of age novel set in Italy, the premise was fantastic and I requested a copy of it from the publisher immediately.
Belladonna by Anbara Salam Book Review
Belladonna by Anbara Salam focuses on Bridget and her best friend Isabella, students in a Catholic High School in Connecticut. Bridget is mixed race and doesn’t fit in the way others do, constantly feeling an outcast, whilst Isabella is beautiful, popular and everything Bridget wants to be. The two girls are offered an amazing and prestigious opportunity to study at an art history school run by nuns in Northern Italy and quickly take up the offer, relocating there for the year together. There, they undertake lessons in Italian, spend time exploring the beautiful Northern Italy landscape and delving into aspects of their personalities that they had never unraveled before.
Bridget quickly develops feelings for Isabella, feelings that aren’t necessarily in line with the expectations of a Catholic school girl. She becomes increasingly jealous when Isabella befriends and grows close to one of the Nuns, Sister XXX, and is certain that Isabella is keeping an enormous secret from her. She tells lies, spreads rumours and does all the things a ‘friend’ would definitely not do – and it’s no wonder that Isabella and her friendship is flawed and unnatural.
A Coming of Age Tale set in 1950s Italy
The story itself’s setting is what really intrigued me – I absolutely adore Italy, I taught English there myself for a very long summer in 2014 outside of Milan, and definitely fell in love with its stunning landscapes and remarkable culture. The school was hosted in a silent convent, with only one sister able to speak to the others. The concept is an unusual one and naturally I was inclined to research the concept, and apparently this is something that happens even here in the UK. It raised with me the idea of being completely absorbed and within your faith, which I imagine can be quite telling. That said, outside of the landscape, the story didn’t quite tick all of my boxes. I enjoyed the story itself but I didn’t find myself connecting with the characters – I found Isabella to be incredibly controlling and manipulative but Bridget was equally as manipulative in the way she built relationships with the other girls. She sees herself as an outsider, overwhelmed by her Egyptian mother and her sick sister, but doesn’t have any interest in connecting with her culture. I would liked to read more about her identity and coming to terms with it, as well as understanding her sister’s illness but it definitely wasn’t a deal breaker.
I enjoyed the exploration of the relationship between Bridget and Isabella, and how Anbara Salam highlighted the unhealthiness of it. It became quickly apparent that Bridget would do whatever she deemed fit to keep Isabella to herself, even resorting to nasty and vindictive methods to keep her on side and away from the tempting friendships of others. It was definitely a quick read and I was absorbed throughout, but there was a little something that was missing from Belladonna by Anbara Salam and stopped it from living entirely up to my expectations.