Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Portrait of Emily Price, by Katherine Reay

Friday we went gallivanting and got back at a scandalously late hour, so Saturday was clearly a day for curling up with a book. The book of choice was a nice, easy read: A Portrait of Emily Price, by Katherine Reay. I'd encountered Katherine's bookish references inserted into modern settings through Dear Mr. Knightley. On this second acquaintance with her writing, A Portrait of Emily Price was full of beautiful references to family and food.

The Book (official book description)
Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. When Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family, however, is another matter . . .

Emily Price—fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist—finds herself in Atlanta, repairing objects damaged in a house fire. As she works to restore the home and dreams of one family, she strives to keep the pieces of her own life in perfect order and secure her own happy ending—a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love.

But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to reconnect with his brother and breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Piccolo. And soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well—inviting her into his world and into his heart.

Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. Upon landing in Rome, she is enchanted with Italy. But instead of allowing the land, culture and people to transform her, Emily imposes her will upon everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.

Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?

My Thoughts 
The tactile aesthetic in this book was simply wonderful. I loved the way Reay gave Ben and Emily both a calling that they loved to pursue with their hands: with Ben and his Italian heritage, it's the family restaurant--the chop of a knife on a cutting board, the making of pasta dough, the perfect seasoning, the artisan coffee and bread. They savor what I love to savor: good food, good tastes, good feelings. And they show the gift that such small things are by how deeply they savor them. I would love to smell their kitchen, go truffle hunting, and feel the soft pasta dough in my hands. 

Emily is wonderful too with her art restoration. She can take brushes and oils and 3-D printers and transform pieces of art through meticulous, loving labor. She can hang art, frame it, and take an interest in the creative work of others. I felt like I got a mini-art education in a totally fun and non-obtrusive way throughout the story. 

The Italian setting is beautiful as well, with the field of sunflowers and the small town churches and gathering places. It makes you feel as if you want to say and call it home. 

The relationships left me with some things I did like and things I didn't: Emily and Ben kiss a lot, and when her sister Amy shows up, Emily's worried that Ben will find her sister more physically attractive. Realistic with who they were, yes, but sometimes I struggle with the amount and intensity. It's more than I want to think about, and it took an edge off the enjoyment. 

Here's what I did like: Katherine Reay did a wonderful job at having her main character believe in a personal lie and learn in a very beautiful, grace-filled, non-obtrusive way. Emily is a fixer. She can't bear to see things broken. I thought her sister was irresponsible because I was reading Emily's point of view, until I realized along with Emily that her sister was fine. Emily needed to back off and realize her sister was now a grown-up. Emily discovers other people's personalities, too: especially her mother-in-law's. Unpeeling Donita's complex layers of family love, pride in her generational pasta talent, open grief, and hidden pain, turned her from misperceived villain to human. As Emily shifts in understanding, we shift too. And underneath everyone, Ben's loyal, faithful commitment to his family's heritage, and his warm love for Emily give the story much charm. 

One thing that still leaves me with an unpleasant aftertaste when I read this is the lack of spiritual understanding on the part of the characters. I love quietly-stated religious themes, but here they are almost too quiet for my liking. I'm forced to conclude that either some of her Christian characters marry non-Christians, or neither Ben nor Emily is a Christian. I think neither of them are believers in this book, which out of the two options, would be my preferred choice. I don't need a buttoned-up journey, but I did want to see more spiritual seeking on their part other than a brief reference. Otherwise the beauty they love and experience is only a temporary one. I'm left to wonder what happens, and if either or both of them ever accept Christ.

Overall, though, I would recommend A Portrait of Emily Price both for its five-senses aesthetic and for its themes of family heritage and coming to understand people's complex layers. If you're struggling to feel empathy towards someone, or want to learn how to savor art and food as incredible gifts of God, this book will give you a good place to start contemplating.

I recieved a review copy of this book from BookLook bloggers. All opinions expressed are my own. 

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