December 18, 2007

Love Falls by Esther Freud Is Exceptional (Book Review)

Like many a teenage girl, Lara Riley contends with awkward insecurities. At 17, she’s yet to feel comfortable in her own skin, the effects of adolescence having enhanced her lanky childhood frame into a nubile feminine body. Her timid disposition leads her to perceive people, especially those of the opposite sex, with caginess and naïve curiosity.

When Lara accepts her father’s unexpected invitation to spend the summer at an ailing friend’s lavish villa in Italy, she soon befriends an affluent family who, in different yet considerable ways, test her sense of identity and purpose as a young woman. In what becomes an exploration of self-discovery and sexual awakening amid precarious circumstances, Lara Riley comes of age in an exceptional new novel by Ester Freud, entitled Love Falls.

Set primarily within the Tuscan town of Siena, the novel illustrates its opulent culture and architecture, landmarks like the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo, with intricate and vibrant detail. Depictions of Il Palio, the renowned annual horse race, as well as its peripheral festivities, convey the keen hysteria among aficionados of the event.

Having been raised by her mother, Lara has grown up with a sporadic and somewhat cursory relationship with her father, a reserved British historian named Lambert Gold. Given their level of unfamiliarity, Lara regards her father with mild trepidation, albeit with customary parental deference. The prospect of spending a summer with him for the first time in her life, though, seems daunting at the outset. As she self-consciously deals with defining her burgeoning sense of self, Lara also ponders her uncertain role as Lambert’s daughter.

Once in Siena, Lara meets the Willoughbys, a wealthy family with a zest for extravagance and pleasure. As she gets acquainted with them, she nervously observes their interactions with each other, how they flirt with one another’s spouse or companion, how the men act audacious, how the women respond with playful complacency. With a sense of wonder, Lara beholds their body language, their unashamed openness, their mischievous group dynamic. In a foreign country where everyone except her father is a stranger, Lara is beguiled by this family’s gregarious and peculiar charisma.

One of the Willoughbys entices her unlike anyone else. When Lara meets Kip, the youngest member of the family, she feels an ambush of all her teenage insecurities and reticence. Her senses more heightened than usual, she’s self-conscious of her body’s sinuous curves and slopes. She’s wary of any superfluous attention her appearance receives. She knows boys find her attractive, but she doesn’t quite appreciate how or why. Yet when she’s with Kip, despite all her anxieties and quirks, Lara feels a visceral rush.

Flooded with unfamiliar emotions toward Kip, Lara soon discerns an undercurrent of curious tension not only among her acquaintances, but also with her father. If her sense of security proves false or fractures, everything she’s accepted on faith or as fact will come into question. Lara’s doubts turn into taut suspicion as her world -- her perception of love, family, and her very identity -- threatens to unravel. Questions need answers, but Lara fears the unalterable consequences of learning the truth.

Esther Freud brilliantly captures the discomfited spirit of adolescence, all the while telling a meticulous and enthralling story. With keen precision, she laces incidents with implications and actions with unforeseen effects. At times a narrative of passion and youthful indulgence, other times one of betrayal and dismay, Love Falls depicts a young woman’s urgent quest to realize the validity of her existence.

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