Her curiosity became more and more unbearable as it simmered under her photography lesson, which on another level, she was enjoying. It reminded her of her childhood, this thinking on two different levels. There was the surface level where she heard her parents screaming at each other, threatening divorce, and then there was that calm place inside her where she planned what would be her own perfect life. When she was little, she wrote stories about it. When she was older, she buried herself in books. Big, thick Russian novels so complex that they made her parents into cartoon figures by comparison.
Author: G.G. Vandagriff
Synopsis: Disheartened by their group therapy sessions, four women with very different struggles take a month's vacation to Florence, Italy together in hopes of finding their own healing. Georgia is grieving the death of her husband; MacKenzie is struggling with her husband's apparent abandonment of the family and the subsequent rebellion of her teenage children; Sara has been trying to dull the pain of hated work and suppressed musical genius with a serious addiction to Xanax; and Roxie is afraid of men and haunted by a hazy memory of abuse. Surrounded by art, beauty, warm-hearted Italians, and freedom, each woman meets with an opportunity for peace—but each must find the courage to accept it.
Little Notes: While Vandagriff's concept isn't new—it openly acknowledges its debt to Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel Enchanted April—it's one that holds up to repetition with comparative ease. For myself, I preferred The Only Way to Paradise to the von Arnim novel, primarily because I actually liked the characters.
The combination of self-discovery themes and romantic foreign settings can discomfit as easily as it can thrill, depending on authorial life ethic. Most of us are keenly interested in gaining a comfortable knowledge of self (says your friendly blogging narcissist), and that's a perfectly fair quest if it comes alongside maturation of—as the author called it—agape, or self-giving love. Self-discovery is so commonly celebrated at the expense of others, both in fiction and reality, that I was thoroughly surprised and pleased to find myself reading a story that was clean, positive, even hopeful, without being sugary or absurd.
It's a self-published novel (Vandagriff has had past work traditionally published), but it's very readable. The prose and storytelling aren't spectacular, but they're believable, usually bearable and sometimes downright thoughtful. The emotional progression starts off a bit slow, but develops a lot in the middle, and I appreciated the sensitivity with which mental illness was handled. All told, it was lovable enough that I suspect I'll be reading more of her work.