Author: Anbara Salam
Publisher: Fig Tree, Penguin
Publication Date: 16th July 2020
It is summer, 1956, when fifteen-year-old Bridget first meets Isabella. In their conservative Connecticut town, Isabella is a breath of fresh air. She is worldly, alluring and brazen: an enigma.
When they receive an offer to study at the Academy in Italy, Bridget is thrilled. This is her ticket to Europe and – better still – a chance to spend nine whole months with her glamorous and unpredictable best friend.
There, lodged in a convent of nuns who have taken a vow of silence, the two girls move towards a passionate but fragile intimacy. As the year rolls on, Bridget grows increasingly fearful that she will lose Isabella’s affections – and the more desperate she gets, the greater the lengths she will go to keep her.
I was immediately intrigued by Belladonna as soon as I read the blurb and it was every bit as atmospheric and enjoyable as I hoped! The story follows Bridget, a young woman in 1950’s America who becomes completely entranced by Isabella, a glamorous new girl at her school. The story then jumps forward to Bridget and Isabella getting the chance to spend a year at a prestigious Italian Academy for young women. Their friendship becomes of singular importance to Bridget and being in Italy with Isabella only intensifies this.
I really loved Belladonna, it is exactly the sort of book I particularly enjoy. It’s focus is on female friendship and desire, both the joy of it and the darkness that can sometimes exist within it. Almost from the very beginning of the book Bridget is obsessed with Isabella and her desperation to become her confidant feels slightly melodramatic. However, I actually think that often adults forget how crucially important and life or death social dynamics feel at that age and this book portrays that so accurately and intelligently. Bridget is not a hugely likeable character in many ways but it is testament to the author’s skill that, despite not always liking her, I still felt invested in what happened to her. Sometimes Bridget’s passion for Isabella was so intense that I just felt desperately sad and almost vicariously embarrassed for her and at others her obsession had a slightly more sinister tinge which made Bridget feel like a possibly unreliable narrator.
The whole book is fabulous but it truly comes to life when the action moves to Italy. The prose is gorgeous and flows beautifully, it is a total pleasure to read. I’ve been to Italy many times throughout my childhood and Belladonna took me right back there. It is fantastically evocative of rural Italy but the girls Academy also put me in mind slightly of books like Malory Towers and The Twins at St. Clares by Enid Blyton which I just loved. The mix of this sort of nostalgic charm with the darker undertones of jealousy and infatuation is perfect in my opinion. Belladonna is an incredibly well written slow burn of a book which is full of subtlety and depth. Bridget is not a one note hero or villain, she is complicated and certainly not always easy to root for but this is what makes her an interesting character to follow. I believe she remains relatable and feels like a real person with flaws and insecurities who perhaps sometimes acts in a selfish or even spiteful manner, something I think we are probably all capable of occasionally. I would absolutely recommend this smart and intoxicating book.
I was kindly sent a copy of the book by the publisher. My review is my own honest opinion.