In a desultory historical tale, social rules and money problems force a young Italian aristocrat into the convent.
Pity the young females of noble but cash-poor families in earlier times, regarded as burdens and sent to convents because dowries and therefore acceptable marriages were unavailable. Such is the fate of Agata Padellani, heroine of the latest novel by Italian-born Hornby (The Almond Picker, 2005, etc.), set in Sicily and Naples in the first half of the 19th century. Despite masses of research and historical background, this is really the story of one girl’s limited choices after her father dies. Agata, 13, in love with a young Sicilian neighbor Giacomo, is relocated to Naples by her newly widowed mother. During the sea voyage Agata catches the attention of English sea captain James Garson, who reappears in Naples and sends her novels. After a crisis with Giacomo, Agata is pushed into a Benedictine convent and begins an interminable sequence of vacillation between hopes for a vocation and desires for a man. She fasts, leaves the convent, turns down an arranged marriage, returns, takes the veil but loses her belief amidst gossip and lurid events such as poisoning and suicide. Eventually, after further travel and imprisonment, a welcome resolution is reached.
Hornby opts for an unpredictable, indecisive central character, and the result is a shapeless, unsettled story.