Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

Swimming to Elba by Silvia AvalloneSwimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone, Antony Shugaar
Published by Viking on June 14, 2012
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.
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A sensually charged novel about two girls growing up fast in a failing industrial town on the coast of Italy
Anna and Francesca are on the brink of everything: high school, adulthood, and the edge of ambition in their provincial town. It’s summer in Piombino, Italy, and in their skimpy bathing suits, flaunting their newly acquired curves, the girls suddenly have everyone in their thrall. This power opens their imagination to a destiny beyond Piombino; the resort town of Elba is just a ferry ride away and yet they’ve never dared to go. Maybe the future is waiting for them there, or somewhere beyond.
When their friendship suffers a blow, the girls set off on their own only to discover that their budding sexuality takes them further than they expect, though not as far as their dreams. As their choices take them to a painful crossroads, the girls must reconnect if they have any hope of escaping their small town destinies.
In this poetic, prizewinning debut, Silvia Avallone captures the lost innocence of a generation. Harrowing yet ultimately redemptive, Swimming to Elba is a story about the power of friendship, and the way that family, friendship, and economics shape our world.


Swimming to Elba was such a disheartening book, whoa. Incredibly well done, but a difficult read.

This novel deals with so many overwhelming themes: poverty, drugs, sex, abuse. Whenever I thought some hope may be on the horizon, that hope was dashed. I felt compelled to read on and on, but I had a knot in my stomach the entire time.

It was an odd reading experience for me. I lived in Italy when I was the same age as Francesca and Anna. Now, I’m around the same as their parents. I thought about my own experiences at their age, having such close, intense friendships, spending summers at the beach, enjoying the free-range kind of liberty that kids enjoy in small Italian towns.

However, the romanticized Italy of our travel books, television shows, and life abroad is not a complete picture. At one point in the book, Anna’s mother very bluntly expresses how she feels about her country. Through their status updates and message board posts, I see glimpses of the frustration and uncertainty my Italian friends have toward their government and the state of their economy. I can tell they are worried about what the future holds for themselves and their children.

That feeling of disillusionment, common among young Italians, is something 27-year-old Silvia Avallone nailed in this debut novel.

Her writing is gorgeous in the descriptive, expressive way that is the Italian language. Antony Shugaar did an amazing job with the translation.

I’m not sure about the ending of the book, though. Something happens that is so graphic and horrific, I was sick to my stomach. When I finished reading the last chapter, I’m not sure if I hadn’t gotten over that incident, was still stunned, or what. But I was left thinking, “really? that’s it? and now it’s over, just like that?”

You can read an interview with Silvia Avallone at the Penguin Group website. It offers a great deal of insight into her novel.

  • Wow, love this review. I am definitely intrigued! Sorry to hear about the ending though…I get a little turned off when an ending takes such an abrupt turn like that. It’s like the author was trying too hard to make a final impression.

    • I’m still wondering if I was just so shocked by the last event I couldn’t grasp the rest. But really, authors should build in some decompression time for their readers or something! 😉

  • This book was almost shocking to me. I liked it, but wow.

    • I don’t think I could ever click “I loved it” on Goodreads or Amazon simply because I would feel so terrible saying I loved all the stuff that went down in this one. Your review was spot on about how despondent and hopeless it felt.

  • Just like when I read Jennifer’s review, I’m really intrigued by this. I think you’re right that, even though they can be disturbing to read, it’s sometimes important to have novels that wake us up a bit.

    • Yes, it was definitely a wake up call for me!

  • This one definitely sounds like a difficult book to read. I’m rather interested in exactly what happens, I don’t read very many ‘international’ books that show the darker side of a country. It’s usually glamorized. Great review.

  • Monika, I can see how you connected more with the book. I can take the disillusionment more than I could the sex and drugs at SUCH a young age. The book was tough, and I did have a hard time getting past those things. Maybe if I knew more about “real” Italy (not just the touristy stuff) then I would have felt differently. I’m glad you shared your POV! I think that’s what book blogging and discussion is all about!

    • It was definitely difficult getting past those things. So depressing. 🙁

  • I actually DNF’d this one. I don’t remember the specifics of why, but something just wasn’t gelling with me right from the start. After reading your review, I think I probably made the right decision for myself. I already read enough sad books as it is–maybe I need some lighter, fluffier things in the mix!