The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom by Allison Love
Broadway Books, 2016. Trade paperback, 328 pages.
The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is a different take on World War II-related fiction. First, it starts in 1937 and spends most of the novel showing pre-war life and tensions. Second, it is set in London and two of the four main characters followed are Italians living in Soho.
Antonio Trombetta is an aspiring Italian singer in London and he uses his voice to supplement his family’s meager income. One night, he meets a girl at a local ballroom and he regards her as breathtaking. Months later, they encounter each other again, in vastly different circumstances. Olivia, now married, is the wife of gentleman, Bernard Rodaway, who wishes to sponsor Antonio’s career. Initially Olivia stays away, until one day when things suddenly change. Meanwhile, life with Antonio’s family is shown, including an ailing father, a loyally Fascist brother, a demanding wife, and a sister who tends to all. That sister, Filomena, struggles with her arranged engagement to a man she does not love while being forced away from the British policeman she does love while also having to deal with a sister-in-law who regards her as nothing more than a servant. And Bernard, the fourth narrator, shows the politics of the era as he struggles to help the many refugees entering Britain and argues that war would be inevitable. Midway through the war, an event occurs which binds all the main characters together forever, in a way that may not have been expected.
I enjoyed this novel. As I have Italian ancestry, it was very interesting to read about an Italian community in England versus the United States. Adding to this, I have yet to read a novel that shows the hardships and biases one faces when they are of “enemy” ancestry and war is about to begin that did not focus on the Japanese-Americans. However, unlike those other novels and biographies, the British knew trouble was brewing and blamed the local Italian population for Mussolini’s actions. And sadly, there is good reason, as many in the community considered themselves loyal Fascists, even to the point of building an ornate Fascist club for themselves in London. However, not all were, and Antonio and Filomena were sympathetic to the British cause. Love showed a good balance of those two versus the other community members, especially their loyally Fascist brother Valentino.
All this said, looking into the characters, each was different. I felt that Filomena’s story tugged at my heart the most, and she is valued by Antonio the most of her family. And Antonio showed a conviction to do what was right, even when it set his fellow countrymen against him. Bernard was the typical aristocrat, but he had a good heart with the causes he supported. However, it was the title character, Olivia, I related to least. She seemed superficial though she was the character that glued the others together. However, all in all, a great read.
Do you think you will read this novel? Do you know of another book featuring Italians or Germans living in Allied countries before the war? If so, please share. And lastly, what might you do when your heart is torn between tradition and coming changes? That could be said to be one of the bases for this novel.
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Note: There are book group discussion questions in the back of the novel.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.