A Californian flies to Rome to help her widowed brother-in-law care for her troubled teenage niece; instead, she wreaks havoc.
Self-pity, self-indulgence, self-rationalization, and general resentment are narrator Cilla’s principal charms in Jacobs’ (Catalina, 2017) second novel. Not that some of Cilla’s general resentment is not justified. She is stuck caring for her aging mother, a former actress who frequently compares Cilla to her younger, prettier sister, Emily. Now 43, Cilla was seduced when barely 15 by her screenwriter father’s 33-year-old protégé, Guy, with whom Cilla remains entwined personally and professionally despite his new, very young girlfriend. While she blames the predatory creep for damaging her life, it irks Cilla that Emily always distrusted him, first as a young girl and more recently as a mother. It also irks Cilla that Emily rose from a “failed” modeling career and drug issues to become college professor Paul’s wife, a celebrated belle in his academic circle. But Emily has recently died of cancer, and Paul has moved to Rome with their 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, who has begun “acting out” in small delinquencies and running with a group of older teens. When he asks Cilla to visit, she jumps at the chance to escape her hospitalized mother. But instead of offering Hannah nurturing support, Cilla joins in partying with the teens and quickly begins an ever escalating flirtation with 17-year-old Donato, who happens to be the son of Paul’s close friends. Thoughtless lust combines with ambivalent jealousy/grief regarding Emily, whom Hannah and Paul remember as more loving and thoughtful than Cilla has described, and ambivalent protectiveness/competitiveness regarding Hannah, who has a serious crush on Donato and is the same age Cilla was when Guy seduced her. As Cilla rationalizes her selfish behavior with Donato, the novel moves slowly but inexorably toward disaster. Only the extent of the mess selfish, narcissistic Cilla leaves in her wake will be a surprise.
An unlikable protagonist can be an invigorating challenge, but in this case a better title might have been The Worst Kind of Woman.