This slim novel set in the 1960s concerns a quiet, studious Italian-American teenager, Dante, and his courtship and growing relationship with Helen, a fellow high school senior. The reserved Dante has silently admired Helen from across the classroom for several months when an unexpected rainstorm gives him the chance walk her home with his umbrella and get to know her.
Knightley makes it clear that this is not your typical boy-meets-girl story. Dante is attracted as much by Helen’s calm, assured demeanor and her sense of connection with her family as by her looks. Her small, tight-knit family is contrasted with Dante’s relationship with his emotionally distant parents. As Dante and Helen grow closer, he questions his habit of keeping people at a distance to maintain his independence, and begins a quest to achieve the interconnectedness and peace he sees in Helen.
The dialogue can be stilted, and some events stretch reality. (I can certainly envision classmates making jokes at the expense of their fellow students, but I doubt most teachers would sanction and take part in such juvenile displays.) Knightley also annoyingly references real people and ideas without identifying them, leaving the reader frustrated and bemused and disrupting the narrative flow.
Most supporting characters are not fleshed out, with the engaging exception of Maristella, Helen’s eleven-year-old sister. At first deeply suspicious of the boyfriend intruding upon her family, she gradually warms to Dante, and her scenes provide welcome comic relief in a sometimes too plaintive book. While the straightforward style does not immediately grab the reader, a wish to find out how Dante and Helen’s relationship culminates keeps the reader going.