“The Creator made Italy by designs from Michelangelo.” Mark Twain knew what he was talking about.
Italy has been my dream destination for as long as I can remember, but the fantasy really took off when I completed an A-Z project on the country in sixth grade. I owe Mrs. Holdinghausen, a geography bawse, so much.
So you can understand my awe and shock when my boyfriend surprised me on our two-year anniversary with a trip to Italy. He told me this was my dream and gave me free rein to plan whatever I wanted. (He probably regretted this after walking over 60 miles in seven days.)
After six months of planning, though I tried to keep some spontaneity, we took off from Newark with my heart racing on Feb. 6. It was finally happening: I was going to Italy.
View from Piazzale Michelangelo
Traveling obviously gives me life and just perpetuates my wanderlust. For book lovers, one of its perks is uninterrupted hours of reading during long flights, especially of books set in your destination. As I embarked on my first Italian holiday, I had two novels in tow, and I was ready to immerse myself in this beautiful land, both physically and in my imagination. Unfortunately, one of those books was a chore to finish.
I had read a Goodreads comment that One Summer Day in Rome had a poor plot but intriguing details about the Roman landscape. At least I knew what I was getting into. The excitement of reading about landmarks and neighborhoods that I was about to or just explored wasn’t enough to bump up this novel’s excitement. I was looking for gelato and ended up with soft serve.
The Futures made all of the lists last year. Readers (including myself) were falling for the story of Evan and Julia, who move to New York City at 22 only to find they don’t have the answers to being adults amidst the Financial Crisis and that they don’t know how to make it work together.
The author of The Futures, Anna Pitoniak, is an editor at Random House where she has worked since graduating from Yale with an English degree in 2008. She began writing her debut novel a few years after graduation, and it was released in January 2017. Although it’s still a challenge to balance being an editor and writer, Pitoniak uses this to her advantage. “[Writing and editing] feed into each other,” she said. “Being an editor has definitely made me a better writer. And I think having written my own book and having it published probably makes me a more empathetic editor in certain ways because I can relate to a lot of things my writers are going through.”
After soaring into the lit scene in 2017, Pitoniak was kind enough to chat with me about the challenges of writing her first novel, one of my favorite TV shows, and about this beautiful yet stressful place we both love: New York City.
Y’all know how much I love books that take place in New York (thankfully, so many do). It’s been my home for almost four years, and I can’t imagine life without it. It’s not just books that take place here, though. I love those that really capture my feelings toward this place, the ones that identify its grandness but also don’t skirt around the anxiety, the annoyances, the exhaustion. Sure, everyone who lives here loves it, but that doesn’t happen the moment you step off the plane; nothing here is ever instantaneous.
Anna Pitoniak exquisitely describes all these feels in her debut novel, The Futures. Maybe it’s the play on words in the title (for my colleagues, #sfiseverywhere) that really roused me. Or maybe it was that one of the two main characters works in finance. Maybe it’s the sprinkling of chick lit. Really, though, this book gets four flames because I felt a sense of myself in the two main characters. Their hardships were mine. Their triumphs were mine. Their love-hate relationships with this beautiful place were mine. I’m not saying The Futures is my life, but Pitoniak gets pretty damn close.
Writing about religion takes a certain gall (not to mention talent to really nail it). It has such an impact on some people’s lives that it’s hard to capture its enormous weight as well as the life it bears to those who practice it. Alice McDermott doesn’t shy away from this challenge in her novel, The Ninth Hour, another top contender in 2017. She exquisitely hits the aura that religion provides with just the right amount of suspense, weariness, and hope. The foreboding, though, that her writing evokes fails to come to fruition in the plot, which ultimately knocks down some stellar language to three flames.
- What: Sing, Unburied, Sing
- Who: Jesmyn Ward
- Pages: 285
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Something Borrowed gave me life. It taught me to go after what I want even if it comes with pain and isn’t easy. It also provided a good deal of practical information. For example, it taught my 16-year-old self what sartorial means (lord, what a great word) and gave me insight into some pertinent acronyms, including “DBCD” (duty, breach, causation, and damages or, more importantly, Dex Buys Celebratory Dinner [take a hint, Rach!]) and “TTH” i.e., trying too hard. Rachel refers to a man when she explains it, but TTH could also be used to describe the last book I read.
It’s not that I didn’t like Sing, Unburied, Sing; it wasn’t on a lot of Best of 2017 lists for nothing. The story line was intriguing with descriptive scene-setting, but the language was almost too poetic. Yes, Ward wrote many beautiful lines, but I also had to reread several passages due to lack of clarity. It simply seemed as if Ward was trying too hard to write elegantly when she already had an interesting narrative in front of her, and TTH is grounds for three flames.