About the Book
It is summer 1956 when fifteen-year-old Bridget first meets Isabella. In their conservative Connecticut town, Isabella is a breath of fresh air. She is worldly, alluring and brazen: an enigma.
When they receive an offer to study at the Academy in Italy, Bridget is thrilled. This is her ticket to Europe and – better still – a chance to spend nine whole months with her glamorous and unpredictable best friend.
There, lodged in a convent of nuns who have taken a vow of silence, the two girls move toward a passionate but fragile intimacy. As the year rolls on, Bridget grows increasingly fearful that she will lose Isabella’s affections – and the more desperate she gets, the greater the lengths she will go to keep her.
Format: ebook (352 pages) Publisher: Fig Tree
Publication date: 16th July 2020 Genre: Historical fiction
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I really enjoyed Anbara Salam’s first novel, Things Bright and Beautiful, set on an island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). For her second novel, she stays in the 1950s but this time the locations are Connecticut and Northern Italy.
Belladonna explores the relationship between two young women – Bridget and Isabella. Seen through Bridget’s adoring eyes, Isabella is sophisticated and mature compared to the other girls at their school. She’s the sort of girl who effortlessly becomes the centre of attention. Conversely, Bridget is an outsider with a home life that she is anxious to conceal. In search of acceptance and a sense of belonging, not least because of her mixed race heritage that makes her the object of insidious racism, Bridget cherishes “the luxury of hope” that Isabella will become her friend.
Always alert for small signs of Isabella’s favour – a glance, a word, a gesture – Bridget is overjoyed when Isabella returns her affection. Even better, there is the prospect of them spending time together studying art along with a group of other girls at the Accademia, housed in the convent of an order of silent nuns in northern Italy.
Arriving first at the Accademia, Bridget feels protective towards Isabella, wondering how the other girls will regard her. “Isabella had such a certain kind of boldness, it was hard to tell how the other girls would take to her. How much she would be hated, or loved.” The fact Bridget imagines Isabella provoking such extreme emotions and not anything in between is in subtle contrast to the quiet restraint exhibited by the nuns.
As term starts, the author really captures the atmosphere of a boarding school-like situation: the petty jealousy, the cliques, the strained friendships, the fallings out over perceived small slights. The reader witnesses how Bridget continually tries to anticipate Isabella’s changing moods, taking heart from small acts of kindness, even relishing being the only one who can understand Isabella’s quirks and then pondering on things she’s afraid she might have said wrong.
The nuanced depiction of the relationship between the young women was one I found fascinating and thought-provoking. I came to think that perhaps Isabella was more dependent on Bridget than Bridget supposed and that Bridget undervalued herself. As the reader witnesses through her dealings with others, Bridget is kind, witty, patient, a keen student. People like her. However, her desire to retain Isabella’s affections – ‘I’d have to be more interesting, more delightful’ – when they seem to be directed elsewhere leads to a series of actions that will have unforseen consequences. In the end, there is a sense of betrayal on both sides.
One of the things I loved about the book was the way the effect of the changing seasons on the landscape surrounding the Academy was described. For example, arriving there for the first time in August, Bridget notices the fields “strumming with cicadas in jouncing waves of noise, the air gritty with toasted grass”. Conversely, in winter, “The wind was sharp and sought out vulnerable skin to slice, slamming unseen doors, whistling frosty arias in the courtyard.” The arrival of spring is marked by the plum trees in the orchards surrounding the convent springing into blossom so that, “The hills around the lake were a mantle of pink and white, a flurry of pastels and silk that flew in the air and settled on the water.”
Belladonna is an acutely-observed exploration of the dynamics of a relationship. As Bridget learns, “Setting your heart on something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea… No matter how much you want it” and that “Sometimes love isn’t enough.”
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Fig Tree via NetGalley.
In three words: Intimate, insightful, intense
Try something similar: Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
About the Author
Anbara Salam is half-Palestinian and half-Scottish, and grew up in London. She has a PhD in Theology and now lives in Oxford. She spent six months working on a small South Pacific island and her experiences there served as the inspiration for her first novel, Things Bright and Beautiful.