BOOK REVIEW / When Irene met Tommaso: 'The Young Italians' - Amanda Prantera: Bloomsbury, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
NOVELS ABOUT the English discovering love in Italy almost constitute a genre. Yet, to classify a work of fiction by its subject is, as E M Forster observed, pernicious unless it deliberately plays with our expectations. Amanda Prantera's Irene, beautiful and orphaned, arrives in Florence to live with an English aunt. Within the first few pages, she not only surrenders her virginity to Tommaso, she also marries him, and in doing so, his entire family. The snobbish expatriate community of Francis King's The Ant Colony vanishes and in its place is a drolly original, wholly convincing portrait of life in a bourgeois Italian family during the Thirties.

Children, worries, holidays, habits are described in coolly sensual prose. In its depiction of the moral inertia affecting middle-class Italians of that period, Prantera, an Englishwoman married to an Italian, is clearly drawing on Moravia's first novel, Gli Indifferenti. Unlike Moravia, however, hers is ultimately a celebration of Italian family life, for its loyalties ultimately triumph over passion and politics.

Irene, luxuriating in companionship, is only half-awake, unable to comprehend her husband's growing political obsession with the rise of Fascism, or the gaps in her life. Then, seven months pregnant, she falls in love with her neighbour Guiliano. Due to twists of fate and conscience, their consuming passion is never consummated, but changes her life. Desperation drives Irene to start studying, to realise that she and Tommaso, 'from nothing but physical attraction . . . now had virtually everything in common'.

Initally a cipher, Tommaso has shown himself to be far more worthy of love than Guiliano, but Irene's dream of romance persists until the latter's sudden death causes such devastating grief that she goes to a psychiatrist. Dr Lowenstein, ex cathedra, tells Irene that 'love is protean, amorphous'. We are the ones who channel it and force it to take shape and direction, and that she can chose whom to love. All very worldly, but alas, not wholly true - or why does the most cynical nation in Europe need opera?

With her sixth novel, Prantera, normally too intellectual for popularity, trespasses a little too far into the realms of romantic fiction, yet not far enough. Once we realise Irene and Guiliano will not become lovers, the novel's shortness seems due to a lack of pep, its plot a twodimensional account of 'an incurably sad affair'. Even so, Prantera has a final surprise up her sleeve, and it redeems the romanticism of the rest. Like the dragees at an Italian wedding, this is a brittle Continental novel confected as a sticky English one.