Ten years ago a friend convinced me to read THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, the Robert James Waller bestseller that seemed to have every woman in the country under its spell. You know the plot --- middle-aged boy meets neglected middle-aged farm girl, they fall in love amidst the bridges, romance abounds, but life's realities keep them from a life of endless true love. I hated it.
So it was with some trepidation that I began THE LAST PROMISE, a similarly outfitted romance novel by another three-named author. I approached it cautiously, ready to ridicule the simplistic storyline and overwrought characters. But wouldn’t you know --- I liked it.
Yes, there’s some Waller-esque treacle here, especially toward the end. And I’m awfully sick of beautiful, intelligent romance heroines who don’t believe they deserve love. But what I liked about the book, even with the somewhat stock characters and easily delivered melodrama, were the details. Mr. Evans knows his Italy.
The story, in a nutshell: Eliana, nee Ellen, moves to Italy with her husband the Count, expecting a life of wine, roses and pasta. But Maurizio quickly proves a different man in Italy than he was in the U.S., where he’d romanced Eliana. Once she gives birth to their son, Alessio, Maurizio is constantly on the road --- and constantly in other women’s beds. Eliana masks her unhappiness through devotion to her two passions ---- Alessio (who is dangerously asthmatic) and her art. Why not divorce, any reasonable person may ask? Well, Evans does a nice job of locking that door before it’s even been opened --- Alessio’s asthma makes it impossible for him to fly (a detail later skimmed over, but whatever) and Italy’s patriarchal divorce laws wouldn’t let Eliana keep custody of her son. Enter Ross Story, an American with a “mysterious past” who comes to board at Maurizio’s villa. He and Eliana predictably hit it off, as Ross is everything Maurizio is not --- caring, loving, attentive, good with Alessio.
The twists and turns won’t blow you away; the lovers are together, then parted, then together, then --- I won’t spoil the ending. Don’t read this book for fresh, exciting characters or a new take on romance. The industry standards are still there, but they inhabit a lush world full of Italian history and mythology, which makes THE LAST PROMISE worth reading.
Evans splits his time between Utah and Italy, and did extensive research for this book. In the prologue he tells readers that his inspiration was a woman who he met at an Italian swimming pool. Her true-life story drives the book, but so does Evans’ love of Italian culture. His descriptions of the countryside, the museums and the legends make this work interesting. Even the Italian proverbs that begin every chapter (which at first I found cloying but later decided were amusing) add a nice dimension. The very notion of Europe conjures romantic imagery. His in-depth descriptions of two of Italy's treasures --- food and painting --- make the book a more interesting read than a reader might expect.
By weaving details of the wine harvest, local festival and vestal virgin tragedies into this story, Evans achieves romance without overcooking it. True love is never tough sell. It's even more palatable when one of the characters is truly likeable. And Eliana is truly likeable, much more real than the sweetly cliche-ridden Ross. Evans manages to make our insecure heroine nonetheless a sensual, sympathetic beauty with a dry sense of humor. How often do you find that in syrupy “earnest” romances?
Too often this genre takes itself too seriously, when it’s much more entertaining to treat it with a smile. It’s fluffy. But it’s also, in this case, enjoyably warm.
Reviewed by Toni Fitzgerald on January 22, 2011
The Last Promise