Seldom do I receive an offer to review a book; this was certainly a title I couldn’t resist accepting. If you love Italy, dogs or both, you won’t want to resist reading it yourself.
Justine van der Leun is a young woman who knows what she wants, whether it’s walking on two feet or four. Sometimes when she gets what she wants it turns out that she doesn’t want it after all (handsome Italian lover, horse), but sometimes when she gets what she wants it turns out to be life-altering (Marcus).
Justine moves to Italy to live with a man she’s known all of three weeks in the small Umbrian town of Collelungo, population hovering around 200. There she quickly learns that she has not taken on just the man, but his entire family as well, and they have taken her on, too. Without a strong extended family background of her own, the realities of an Italian family are a shock to our heroine, and one to which she can never entirely adapt. (There’s a lot here about the strength of the matriarch in the Italian family.) Also shocking is for Justine to see Italy as it really is, not as we imagine it from movies and other move-to-Italian-paradise books. Justine may have come to Italy, but it was no paradise.
She remains in Collelungo a year, during which time she adopts a darling but challenging canine whom she christens Marcus. (You’ll learn quite a bit about the rather unfortunate circumstances of Italy’s hunting dogs.) Despite the doggy title, Justine ends up learning a terrific amount, not just about love but about life, from the family and from the town. Even more, she learns to know herself a lot better. That journey is the heart of book, and it is a delight. Strong-willed, intelligent and, perhaps, a bit privileged and naive, Justine is thrown into a situation where people still kill their own food, where self-sufficiency is a way of life and a point of honor. She has the grit , humor and humility to absorb the lessons that are offered by the experience. She’s a modern, witty young woman, and she’s a terrific writer.
What I enjoyed most about the book is that it shows Italy as it truly is in a great many places. She lived in the ‘real’ Italy, not the Italy of the touristic centers of Venice, Rome, Florence, not the Italy of ‘Chiantishire’ in Tuscany, or the sun-drenched Riviera. People in Collelungo are patient, they are sometimes slow, they work incredibly hard, they probably know how to hold a grudge. Because they live in a town of only 200, there is nothing they do not know about their neighbors, whom they are very likely to accept just as they are, and they have no secrets of their own. They are not sophisticated, traveled, particularly well-schooled (though some of the young now are); they remember what it was like to be impoverished. But they know how to laugh, cook, eat, fight, and laugh some more. As Justine says, they have tailored their expectations to what they have; they are happy.
And what about Marcus? She (yes, she) is the agent of Justine’s greatest lesson: responsibility for our actions. As she herself says, “I had willfully shifted another being’s course, and that meant that I was technically morally bounded to ensure her well-being for a lifetime”. That doesn’t stop her from making a few more blunders, but one of the most refreshing aspects of this book is the humor with which Justine is able to admit her own shortcomings.
No, she’s not perfect; and neither is Italy or Umbria or her boyfriend and his family, or Marcus (bit of a chicken issue there). But they all have something wonderful to offer and Justine is smart enough to take it all in. Her boyfriend’s family, the Crucianis, are as warmly and honestly drawn as is Italy. And always there’s the sense of humor.
There’s nothing pretentious about Justine van der Leun or her book. I don’t know her, but having read the book I feel like she’s a friend. I think you’ll like her too.