by Carol Grace, contemporary (2003)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6760-4
Carol Grace offers a pleasant little slice of travelogue-cum-escapist fiction with That's Amore. Forty-one year old librarian Anne Marie Jackson visits Italy to get away from her hometown and from her ex-husband's wedding to his new love. There's a good reason why she is on a trip she can't really afford - she needs to get away from her life if at least for a while and she's also hoping to start something with Giovanni. Giovanni is that handsome Italian exchange student she met when she was in high school. He's the first boy she kissed. They kept in contact somewhat sparsely over the years. When he invites her over, how can she say no?
She meets a handsome forty-year old Marco Moretti instead. Marco, unknown to her, is with the Guardia Financia e Straniero and he is a government agent assigned to capture Giovanni. Yes, Giovanni is a diamond smuggler. Guess whom Marco pegs as his prime suspect on leading him to Giovanni. Effortlessly, he charms and flatters her into falling for him. Of course, as they always do, he isn't immune to her either.
Reading this book, I come away with this impression that Italians drop everything they are doing and dance everywhere at the drop of a hat. They love it when you walk by and steal things from them, because it shows that you love what they have. Or so it seems when Anne Marie steals a tomato and the tomato plant owner acts as if she's been graced by the Pope himself. The next time I go to Italy and am feeling hungry, I'm going to walk right into a deli and steal a whole chicken. If I'm lucky the deli will give me a discount the next time I visit. Fortune tellers are everywhere and restaurant staff always come out and sing to tourists. What else is there?
The author is well aware that she is dealing with stereotypes. At one point, Marco even admits to himself that his grandmother and crazy cousin are stereotypes.
I find most of the book, where Marco is basically giving Anne Marie a tour of Sorrento, a little too sweet. (The Giovanni subplot is pretty much inconsequential.) All those dancing and singing feel self-conscious and contrived too. But what I do appreciate is Anne Marie. Through her heroine, Ms Grace has created a wonderful placeholder for me to step away from my life and visit an Utopian part of Italy where strangers are kind and accepting and only the hero is a big freaking liar. Anne Marie, like the story, can get a little too sweet at times, but since this oversweet story is like a Carebear cartoon, she fits right in. But even when Anne Marie's choking on saccharine thoughts, she's also an intelligent and sensitive heroine in her own right. I really enjoy how she stands up to the hero and gives him a piece of her mind in her own sweet, bumbling way. I wish she doesn't give in so easily at the end when he comes begging for her to come back, but hey, they're so sweet together, I feel callous if I nitpick so much.
Marco is a stereotypical sweet-talking Italian smoothie who at the same time comes off like an earnest little boy. I mean, how can I resist a government agent who just wants to retire behind a desk, get married, and be nice to his grandmother? Towards the end, he declares his love for Anne Marie in such a quaint yet so romantic way that I am charmed despite my reservations about their romance.
It is very easy to dislike this book and its overreliance on cultural stereotypes if the main characters aren't so sweet, so nice, so likable. The romance is written in a whimsical way more fitting for a young girl's diary, but nonetheless, it works very well. I have all my defenses ready, all my cynicism raised to an all-time high, but in the end, I can't resist the story of a sweet and sometimes naive forty-one year old woman who goes to Italy to find true love. She doesn't really find herself in the process - none of the characters here are written deep enough - and I do have my doubts about marrying a man who has been lying almost the entire time we are together. Still, like memories of a wonderful vacation fling to cherish long after summer is gone, That's Amore is a most enjoyable sort of superficial.
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