Saints and dinners

BOOKS FICTION/POETRY THE SHRINE by Cristina Odone Weidenfeld pounds 14.99
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CRISTINA ODONE, the Italian beauty who came via America and Oxford to grace the editor's chair of the Catholic Herald, has now written a first novel which could itself have used a fiercer edit.

There is plenty that is right with the book. There is a tangible rural Italian atmosphere redolent of basil and geraniums, and a particularly good line in interiors sporting Venetian fluted glass and Neapolitan tiles. There is a promising cast, including a visionary adolescent saintlette (literally, Santarella) who regularly sees the Holy Mother; Santarella's less-than-holy earthly mother, who has slept with the mayor for years; a priest and an old soldier who, along with the mayor, want to build a shrine for Santarella, to proliferate plastic statues and profitable memorabilia.

Young artist heroine Alma Ferratio, born with a silver spoon in her mouth, is now having it snatched away. Alma's distress is understandable enough as she watches her deceased father's debts emerge from his wheeler-dealer past and force her and her brother Francesco to sell the family pile and its vineyards. And then there is Alma's burgeoning romance with a handsome local notary called Miso.

Miso is supposed to represent the simplicity and integrity of village life. He lives with his mother, fancies Alma and resents that the latter doesn't more closely resemble the former. Why does Alma not possess those qualities of domesticity and self-sacrifice which he associates with proper womanhood? Alma, because she has briefly lived in Torino and has had her own art exhibition, is reckoned to be wildly worldly. Surprisingly, Miso doesn't actually mind much that Alma has had an affair with one of her father's old friends, who got her some painting commissions - indeed sexual mores throughout the novel are surprisingly free-form - but what kills him are her "socialite friends in their flashy cars and their cocktails every night". But where are these cocktail-swillers? The reader keeps hearing about some fast and glamorous Torino crowd, but finds little evidence of it.

Alma holds forth about her artistic ambitions ("It's not a pastime, Miso ... It's my life") and these, she says, will never be satisfied in provincial San Lorenzo. Meanwhile Miso moans that she is not like the women he is used to because she isn't up to her armpits in home-made pesto.

To stir it all up, Miso's mother chides: "I know you're not a cook, you like to paint, but I can tell you, my dear Alma, men prefer food in their stomach to a pretty picture they hang on the wall." The whole "conflict" becomes hollow through overstatement: Odone becomes excessively bogged down with her romantic/feminist dilemma, and you begin to wonder what is so mutually exclusive about applying paint and making pasta.

Odone provides one female figure with "masculine" clout. Her husband has had a stroke; she drums up a fortune single-handedly and buys most of the village, including Alma's family seat. Alma's brother, who works as a publisher in London, is married to an Englishwoman so grasping and wet that it's a relief she is never brought centre-page. There are altogether too many types and not enough people.

Santarella alone takes a vow of silence, thus refusing to be exploitatively squeezed into a saintly slot, but then she is reduced to shimmering mystically on the sidelines.

This is a book that seems to promise - and indeed, to a certain extent, delivers - gentle comedy and a cosy, palatable morality, though it spreads its elements of plot and, especially, of character regrettably thin. And even if the march of feminism is a sluggish business in Italy, it surely shouldn't reduce the course of true love to a debate so ponderous.