I’m a sucker for covers that fit their books well. When I spotted Anbara Salam’s Belladonna on Twitter, it was that strikingly evocative jacket that snagged my interest although I was concerned it might be a wee bit fluffy. While it’s certainly an easy read, fluffy’s not the word for this coming-of-age novel, set in Connecticut and rural northern Italy, which explores themes of identity, love and friendship through the story of Bridget and Isabella, the object of Bridget’s obsession.
Sophie LeBaron wasn’t the richest girl in our grade, but her particular kind of richness afforded her a flimsy glamour, like a gold butterscotch wrapper
Bridget meets Isabella in 1956. Both are fifteen, and both have secrets. Bridget’s classmates are the daughters of wealthy St Cyrus families who welcome Isabella as one of their own when she moves to the town, thrilled and fascinated by this confident girl who is very much her own person. Bridget is smitten, terrified that Isabella will disparage the background she does her best to gloss over but summons the courage to invite her home for supper. Her family lack the trappings of wealth her friends take for granted, her sister is desperately unwell and her Egyptian mother works. Two years after they meet, Bridget has her sights on a year’s scholarship awarded to two of the high school’s pupils at an art history academy in Italy with which it has links. Fulfilling her fervent hopes, Isabella wins the other. When the year begins in earnest, Bridget has already established herself, allowing the other young women to believe she’s just like them with their summer houses, skiing holidays and engagement parties. As the year progresses, she becomes increasingly enmeshed in her own deception, never entirely secure in Isabella’s regard despite their classmates’ assumptions. When Bridget is called home for a family emergency, Isabella forms an unexpected intimacy which will irrevocably change things between these two friends.
Hawthorn berries hung so heavy along the path it looked as if red wax had been splattered over the trees
Clearly aimed at the summer reading market, Salam’s novel manages to combine serious themes with a smart piece of storytelling and a page-turning pace. Bridget tells us her own story, her teenage anxiety amplified by her position as an outsider in St Cyrus’ privileged society. Her painful awareness of her friends’ condescension is palpable, her small deceptions paving the way for larger ones which threaten to hurt the person she’s convinced herself is the only one that matters to her. All of this is subtly done so that we come to see how society’s treatment of Bridget has made her the self-absorbed, dishonest young woman she has become. Salam evokes the intense, gossipy, boarding school atmosphere of the academy beautifully, putting me in minds of Magda Szabó’s Abigail and her descriptive writing is gorgeous taking me to northern Italy in the way that Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers took me to Hydra earlier in the year. I was right about that jacket: a smart piece of summer reading, as well-turned out inside as it is out, and it ends with the hope of redemption, always a favourite with me.
Fig Tree: London 9780241404799 352 pages Paperback