As I post this, my husband and I are preparing to pack our overnight bags, ready to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary this weekend. What does that have to do with a book review? Quite a lot as it turns out.
At the core of The Florentine Bridge is the intense relationship between Mia and Luca. An Australian girl and an Italian guy, who fall hopelessly in love with each other in one of the most romantic cities in the world. The novel explores the age-old adage that to love someone is to set them free, and questions whether love really can conquer all. But its themes go deeper than that. How do you learn to focus on the positive when the negative overshadows every aspect of your life? How can you find or regain your creative outlet in order to heal?
Initially I thought that this was going to be a cosy, romantic read. A change of pace after the disturbing, yet brilliantly written, The Natural Way of Things. I was expecting that I would enjoy the story, write a nice review, then choose the next book from an ever-growing pile. It wasn’t supposed to make me question my own views on romance and love. And it surprised me that I was able to see how Mia’s love of painting was relatable to my own love of writing. But the most helpful message I took from the book was to focus on living in the here and now, rather than on moments that cannot be undone, or may not happen in the future.
As I reluctantly slid my bookmark into place and began cooking dinner for my family, I couldn’t help but reflect on the depth of emotion and passion expressed in this book. I have to admit, I was envious of the blatant PDAs (public displays of affection) between Mia and Luca. Was I cynical to think that the characters were just enacting the stuff of books and movies? Does this reflect real life? I want to believe that it does. As I became more attached to the novel and connected to the characters, I came to believe in them and their love for each other. But where did that leave me and my life? Why was I getting so caught up in a fictitious story?
Perhaps it was the location of the novel that got under my skin and brought long forgotten memories to the surface. In February 1998 (nearly 20 years ago), I strolled with my then-boyfriend along the cobbled streets of Florence. We visited the art galleries Mia mentions, and walked hand in hand along the Ponte Vecchio. As I read The Florentine Bridge, I was able to go back in time.
I salivated over the descriptions of the romantic restaurant meals Mia and Luca enjoyed and smiled at my own memories of dining in Florence. We were there on Valentine’s Day, but we ate at McDonald’s. There’s a whole backstory to that, but it has become one of my favourite anecdotes from our trip. Back to the present, I snapped the generic spaghetti sticks into boiling water and stirred my go-to spag bol sauce for the kids. But my focus was not on the simple meal I was preparing, I was dreaming about the fabulous descriptions of food devoured throughout the novel, and in turn about food I’d enjoyed on my own travels. A good book has the ability to do this – to take you away from the mundane and allow you to escape to other worlds.
The quotes in the book about the healing powers of painting rang true to me. My own painting abilities didn’t develop beyond the stick figures of childhood, however it was easy to think in terms of how writing makes me feel (rather than painting) as I read those passages. Mia befriends an elderly gentleman, Signor Fiorelli, a kindly widower who sells his paintings in the Piazza degli Uffizi. When Mia asks him whether he comes there to paint every day, he replies, ‘Every day, Mia, every day, since I realised that painting has the power to heal me.‘ We all need a Signor Fiorelli in our lives. Someone who encourages us to pursue our creative selves. Someone who can tell us, ‘You must believe in your abilities as an artist. Your work is selling because your work isn’t simply steeped in colour. It’s rich with emotion. The kind of emotion that can only be expressed when you’ve lived what you’ve lived.’ I like this positive outlook – using life’s crappy experiences to enrich your art.
Mia’s brush with cancer could have been replaced with any manner of dark setbacks. In the beginning, Mia is only able to focus on her ten percent recurrence rate, rather than the ninety per cent survival rate. This focus holds her back from living a full life, but through her relationship with Luca and her love of painting, she learns to change this focus. Luca says to her ‘You’re not broken, Mia. In all of this, you have a choice. You can choose to embrace the life you are creating for yourself now. Or you can continue to use that figure of ten per cent as the thing that torments you day and night. If you put off your happiness for the day you get a hundred per cent survival rate, you’ll never be truly free and happy.’ Good advice for whatever it is that holds us back from living our best life.
As I think about the twenty-plus years that I have been with my husband, I am grateful that this book has brought into sharp focus the importance of early love. Of creating special memories that entwine and then anchor you to each other when marriage becomes difficult. On our wedding anniversary, will we be like Mia and Luca, staring deeply and longingly into each others eyes over the candle-lit dinner we have planned? Unlikely. But I know we’ll enjoy a few glasses of wine and relax as the responsibilities of work and family fade away. We will share our early memories and talk about things that just don’t make it into our busy, everyday conversations. Then I’ll hear that unique little laugh he gives when he’s truly relaxed and his guard is down. We won’t be whispering sweet nothings to each other like Mia and Luca, but I’m learning to be ok with that. Books like this debut novel from Vanessa Carnevale allow me to escape and experience those other lives when I want to.
Mia says in the book, ‘nothing can heal us, or hurt us, quite like love can.’ My husband has given me a life of travel, comfort, children and the freedom to pursue my writing dream. Things aren’t always rosy, nor does our relationship resemble Mia and Luca’s. But I know that after all these years we still care deeply for each other.
This quote from The Florentine Bridge sums it up:
I want you to know that no matter what, I’ll always be here. No matter what happens to you or me.