The Italian Lover is a literary mash-up with a Hollywood spin – the heroine from Robert Hellenga’s debut novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, falls in love with the hero from his second novel, The Fall of a Sparrow, while her book is being made into a movie. For fans of the earlier books, this has the immediate appeal of visiting old friends. Unfortunately, the appeal wears off pretty fast.
The main problem is that the stories of Margot and Woody were told very well and in full in their own books. They faced conflict, grew as people, and, in their own ways, lived happily ever after – their “story arcs” were complete. There is nothing more to add to their stories in this book, so these beloved characters are relegated to being little more than props for the story about making the movie. They are involved in the plot, but they do not develop as characters.
The movie story is central to the book, but it is thin and choppy. Any of the several characters involved in making the movie – the newly-divorced producer, anxious to prove she can make a movie on her own; the director dying of cancer, trying to make one last good movie; the aging starlet questioning her life choices; or several peripheral others – would make good anchors for a novel. But Hellenga skips from storyline to storyline without delving deeply into any of them.
The Italian Lover is entertaining. It moves right along and is full of beautiful Florentine scenes. But unlike The Sixteen Pleasures and The Fall of a Sparrow, it lacks depth and it does not linger in the mind.