Imagine you open a book and are suddenly drawn into another world: Italy in the 1930s. You get to escape your boring life at Langton Hall, a gothic castle and your family’s ancestral home. You get to escape your parent’s expectation to behave accordingly and to marry a respectable man they pick out for you. Imagine you get one summer to visit Florence, converse with young artists and eat fresh pastries every single day. Laura Wood makes it possible.
After her debut A Sky Painted Gold, which I haven’t read yet but will certainly do so as soon as possible, her Italian summer love story Under a Dancing Star was published in 2019. The beautiful turquoise and golden book cover caught my eye when I was working in a bookstore and I remember sneaking up to the bookshelf and browsing in it during working hours. Set in Italy? Historical elements? A summer romance? Count me in.
Beatrice Langton is not what her parents want her to be. She is interested in animals, biology and science and she wishes to leave her personal prison to travel and study. Her parents, however, have different plans for Bea and want her to keep the Langton family alive by marrying Cuthbert, son of the vicar. After disrespecting her parents’ wishes, Bea is sent to her uncle in Italy to make her come to her senses. However, it turns out Uncle Leo has changed and became more open-minded since he fell in love with the Italian artist Filomena. At the Villa di Stelle, Filomena invites young artists to spend the summer with them and support them with their work. Suddenly, Bea is drawn into a world of aestheticism, beauty and freedom. She can say what she wants to say, wear trousers, learn how to draw and visit museums, or go swimming in a bathing suit. But that is not all. Bea is drawn to Ben, the young, enigmatic and charming artist living at the villa. Soon she decides that this is a summer full of new experiences and they start to challenge themselves to have a summer romance. If not now, when? All they have to do is enjoy themselves and try not to fall in love…easier said than done.
He is right, of course, and for a second, I catch a glimpse of what it might be like to be an artist, just a little of what they are doing here. And the feeling is delicious.p.110
Laura Wood’s story is a retelling of William Shakespeare’s beloved comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Ben(edick) and Beatrice’s romance is put in a new setting at a different time. Although Beatrice experiences what freedom may feel like in Italy, she is still a woman fighting for her rights. She wants to wear trousers, visit Florence without a chaperone, and most importantly: study science. Wood creates a female protagonist that does not fit the stereotypical YA novel main character. Bea is striving for independence, she is curious, intelligent and witty, and she is not afraid to say what she wants. This is not a cliché “bad boy makes a good girl fall in love with him”- kind of story, and I am thankful for that. Bea is the one who can be seductive and daring, and who wants to try out new things. The relationship between and Ben and Bea is so genuine and authentic, still romantic and exciting, I fell in love with them. There was not a single cliché moment in here, the dialogues were innovative and I found myself closing the book, looking around, sighing and reading pages over and over again. Most of the time when I read this book, I was sitting on the train, but I found myself in a garden next to a fountain, eating grapes and admiring the insects and birds Wood describes so beautifully in Bea’s words.
In addition, Wood captures moments of political change. Mentions of the rise of fascism mirror what happened in Europe in the 1930s as they appear suddenly and catch you off guard as feelings of happiness and freedom are disturbed. Liberalism, free speech and experimentation in the arts came to a halt in Europe. Mentions of the rise of Hitler in Germany, Bea’s friend Ursula who is a playwright and hides at the villa as she happens to be jewish, homophobia, and fascist elites who support Mussolini and lure in Uncle Leo reappear in the course of the story. When reading Under a Dancing Star, you feel like you are living in a fairytale world. Art, good food, Florence, Italian sunsets, and fashion. Wood manages to incorporate depth and seriousness to this world by bringing her readers back down to earth by including real-life events.
I have to admit, I missed reading YA novels and being totally immersed into their exciting, fast and romantic stories. However, sometimes I feel like Young Adult novels are too quick and cliché. Especially after reading classics or high contemporary literature, I cannot read YA without noticing the difference in language and style. Nevertheless, Wood’s descriptive and poetic language made me fall in love with her second novel Under a Dancing Star even more. She manages to make you become a part of her magic.
Laura Wood’s novel made it into my top 5 all-time favourite YA novels. Her story is refreshing, exciting and leaves you an emotional mess. Under a Dancing Star is a wonderful romance, but most importantly it is about a young woman finding her way in life. If you need the perfect summer romance, if you wish to travel to Italy but a global pandemic is stopping you, if you look for a way to escape the 21st century, stop what you are doing. We could all use a little magic. Pick up Laura Wood’s Under a Dancing Star and travel safely!
Paperback, 402 pages