Rating: 4 stars
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While sketching patrons in his parents’ restaurant, Serafino “Fino” da Ferrara catches the eye of Mastro Filargiro. The man instantly recognizes Fino’s utter genius and the entire village makes a point of helping Fino gather the necessary clothes and materials to study art formally. During his brief time with Filargiro, Fino meets another boy named Ludovico d’Este. The two could not be more dissimilar. Fino has astounding natural talent, impeccable manners, and is so poor he relies on profound charity to study with the Mastro. Meanwhile, Ludovico is the son of a duke and nominally studying art like many aristocratic children. Despite their differences, they form an intense bond. Even knowing their future paths will surely separate them, the men are desperate for one another’s company. Before long, Fino is dubbed Fino da Ferrara and embarks on a laborious journey from region to region as word of his artistic skill travels. Though his rise is meteoric, the dangers of unseating contemporary greats like Michelangelo and Raphael cause Fino their own troubles. Years later, Fino is just cresting the first wave of astounding success when he and Ludovico reenter the same orbit. But their joy is a perilous one when jealousy among artists threatens to end Fino’s career permanently.
Some five hundred years later, Parker Henderson arrives in Italy with his family; his father is set to work in an American embassy in the Tuscan region. Thrilled with living a European life, Parker dives into the language and culture. And his budding talent with visual art warrants him a space at a local public school that focuses on art. There, he meets Bepe, who introduces Parker to real Italian living, not to mention romance. The two teens become thick as thieves, spending so much time together they are sometimes mistaken for brothers. But their deliriously happy romance encounters a few bumps along the way, especially because of a few major secrets Bepe keeps. One of those secrets slips out of the U.S. Embassy every day at three o’clock and the fallout eventually sends Parker on a gap-year journey to discover who he is…and if there is a space for Bepe in the future.
Serafino da Ferrara is a half historical fiction, half young adult story. Personally, I read the blurb and was sort of expecting a time-traveling element, so let me clarify: there is no time traveling, no magic, no fantasy, no paranormal element to the book. Instead, there are basically two whole stories—one about a brilliant sixteenth-century artist and one about a twenty-first-century American teen in Italy. Fino’s and Parker’s stories generally follow the same arc. Fino has a fraught rise to fame. Parker comes of age in Europe, where he finds a lot of acceptance from the people closest to him. For the vast majority of the book, nothing but these loose parallels of Fino and Parker coming into their own match up. But later, we learn that Parker’s family is living in the Italian palazzo where Fino briefly lived with Ludovico. Parker find’s Fino’s journal and some of his art, and for the last little bit of the story, the action comes hard and fast as Parker discovers who Fino is and why his name isn’t synonymous with the Renaissance like Michelangelo and Raphael are.
I hope anyone who reads this book goes into it with an open mind regarding the prose and the story building. In the front matter of the book, Grossi explains he is an Italian born and bred. I would hazard a guess that the flow of the story reflects Italian storytelling conventions. It’s hard to describe, but the overall tone lacks the laser-tight focus on building an iron-clad narrative that I associate with so much English-language contemporary writing. Our characters splash onto the pages of the book and it’s like seeing pages of their own diaries come to life, the way they focus on specific events or time periods. There’s a lot of detail and the events flow easily from one thing to the next, but we’re not spoon fed every detail every time.
I will say that Fino’s story does have a bit more of a traditional “building toward something” quality to it. This is driven in large part by the way he’s trundled from teacher to teacher, paying his dues, as it were, on the way to becoming a great painter. What makes this more exciting is that his teachers generally resent his astounding talent. I would urge readers to take the time to read the back matter where Grossi discusses his ideas about using real historical figures in this book. I ended up googling Michelangelo and Raphael and not only was it fun to read what the internet says about them, it was interesting to compare it to what the Italian author had to say about them…and how they were fictionalized for the story.
As far as the two stories go, I ended up being a big fan of Fino’s story. It starts off slow, but when he reunites with Ludovico and when they realize powerful people are after Fino wasn’t just…really good angst. Parker’s story is pretty wild. It starts off kind of tame, but Parker explores a lot of morally gray areas. There was the scene where Parker tries to seduce a gay, adult friend of the family (who is not only married, but Parker tries to seduce him in front of his husband). Later on, he goes through a sort of rite of passage where he somehow becomes the star of a bukkake (he’s in the middle of a circle jerk) in the locker room. I think these are two good examples of what I mean when I mentioned writing conventions; both of these events are handled pretty breezily in the book—like just some shenanigans any teenager would get up to. There are no major explorations into the attempted seduction or what it means to be the star of the after-practice jerk off session. They just happen and the parties involved kind of move on.
Overall, I thought this was a really interesting book. Not quite my cup of tea, but plenty to enjoy. My only persnickety critiques are these: The editing could have been a little tighter (some subject-verb disagreement, wild swings in register, etc). The author also has bad habit of not introducing new characters by their full name/title (for example, Parker’s mom appeared as “Elizabeth” in a list of people coming on a trip, I had no idea who “Elizabeth” was at first because she hadn’t been named beyond “mom” or “Mrs. Henderson” at that point), and the demarcations between events (especially in-chapter ones) left a lot to be desired.
If you’re into historical fiction, or if you ever studied abroad and felt that magic of getting to immerse yourself in a new culture, I think there is a lot to enjoy in this story. If you like foreign films, you’ll probably get into this, too! (I think this story would work super well in a visual medium, actually!) I thought the structure of the story, twining Fino’s and Parker’s timelines together, worked well. It was an especially exciting way to bring the two stories together and offered an ending that seemed desperately sad for one couple while offering the suggestion of hope for the other.