Have you ever walked away from a book with the feeling you could still taste it, smell it, all your senses in withdrawal because for as long as it took you to read that book, you were there, in it—walking those cobblestoned streets, feeling the sunshine on your skin, hearing the chirpy song of the cicadas, lavender and lemons filling your nose with their tangy scent, while your eyes basked in the devastating beauty of the landscape before them? This story was that book for me, Karina Halle’s evocative prose transporting us to the south of Italy, on a journey of self-discovery and introspection, where a young woman travels the world to find herself and love ends up being her ultimate find. A delightful reading escape, I could not stop myself from devouring this story, loving every single word.
“I’m just this useless, helpless, average little human being who will never live up to her potential.”
Twenty-four-year-old Amber McLean has been backpacking around the world for the past six months, searching for a reason not to go back home to California, where she would be forced to become the ‘responsible adult’ her parents wish her to be, even though she knows that the happiness she is looking for in life can never be found there. But gallivanting across the globe has only depleted all of Amber’s savings, not bringing her any closer to finding herself, and only making her even more desperate to find a reason not to return home. With only enough money left to reach the Italian Amalfi Coast and live there for a week before going completely broke, she finds a job on her first day there—teaching English to two young children on the breathtaking island of Capri—but she soon discovers that her new job is a lot more complicated than she expected it to be.
“If you can handle that man, then you can handle the children. Then you can handle anything.”
With two badly behaved and grieving children, a run-down estate, and a moody twenty-nine-year-old ex-motorcycle racer for a boss, Amber is out of her depth from the get-go, but everything about the lonely Larosa family tugs at her heartstrings and makes her even more determined to stick by them and help them find peace and happiness again. Not to mention that each encounter with her boss leaves her hot and bothered, and more than a little curious about all the secrets behind his reclusive ways.
“This is starting to sound like Beauty and the Beast. Oh my God, am I Belle? Is he an Italian Beast? Did I just stumble into the best scenario ever?”
And so Amber’s true adventure starts, as she slowly shows the Larosas how to be a family again. But her greatest challenge proves to be the oldest member of the Larosa family, Desiderio, who’s own fears and broken heart have frozen him in time, unable to feel anything since the day he lost it all at once. By not running for the hills every time he shows her his darkest side and tries to push her away, she forces him to let his guard down, jump-starting his heart and life again, and so what begins as a vacation romance quickly becomes the greatest love story of her life.
“I hate to think that one day I’ll be back home, dreaming of the man who liked me just the way I am.”
However, while her lover’s life might be finally moving in the right direction, Amber finds herself at an ever greater crossroad than before, struggling with the knowledge that Desiderio’s happiness might eventually cost her her own. It’s a story about the time-old question of whether love alone is enough to make a person happy, our heroine having left one uncertainty behind for another, this time taking a leap into the unknown and taking a chance on love putting not only her future, but also her heart on the line. I loved the way Amber remains true to herself until the end, following her heart, but also listening to reason, her every decision being a perfect reflection of the person she truly is. Her struggle felt real to me, honest and relatable, making her a heroine that was incredibly easy to connect and sympathise with, as well as be inspired by. Her parents’ constant criticism is like a little voice in her head that keeps telling her that she’d never amount to anything, and forever remain a disappointment to them, and yet she keeps taking risks and seeking happiness at all costs. This story might not be as ‘edgy’ or as ‘daring’ as some of Halle’s earlier works, but it is no less unputdownable or compelling, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
“Life works out the way it wants to.”
“Let’s go for it,” I tell him.
He goes first, pulling himself along, and I have the pleasure of watching his beautiful back and shoulders work above the water, mirrored by his ass and legs below the surface.
I am not as graceful. I hang there like a fat orangutan and shuffle myself along until we’re just inside the cave. Then I let go of the chain, falling into the water, but Derio’s arms are around me, keeping me afloat.
The cave seems so black and dark in front of us and behind us; the tiny opening only lets in so much light.
“I thought the cave would be blue,” I tell Derio. By now the water is a lot warmer and my body is getting used to treading water.
“Just wait a moment,” he says and swims farther in.
Now this is feeling a bit more like nightmare territory. I paddle after him and try not to think of what could be lurking beneath my feet.
“Did you know,” Derio says, his voice bouncing off the unseen walls of the cave, “that in ancient times, Tiberius, the emperor who built Villa Jovis, used this cave? They have found sculptures and artifacts from that time period at the bottom.”
“So there is a bottom,” I muse, spitting out some of the salty seawater.
“It is very far down,” he says, and I detect a slight tremor to his voice. He swims over to me, his features becoming lighter as he nears me and the entrance to the cave. “But I hear it is sandy, if that helps.”
Normally, a nice sandy ocean floor wouldn’t scare me as much as a nebulous rocky one, but in this cave everything is kind of scary.
“You know what else is special about this cave?” he asks, an arm circling my waist.
“There were many ancient orgies in here,” he says with a wag of his brows.
I burst out laughing and the sound echoes around us. “You and your ancient orgies, my God.”
“It’s true,” he says, “they would swim in here and have sex with the witches and sea monsters.”
“Your imagination both frightens and intrigues me.”
He smirks and then looks between us at the water just below my chin. I swallow and follow his eyes. Our legs turn from white to black as the water around us slowly becomes a saturated blue, the color of sapphires, and we become floating silhouettes.
“The sun is hitting the water,” he says with a smile. “Out there somewhere. The light comes in through the entrance, as well as an opening farther below.”
It’s like magic. Slowly, the cave walls begin to lighten just a little and the water lights up as if lit by blue glow sticks. The water stretches far back and the cave ends up being a lot longer and higher than I imagined. In less than a minute, it goes from something unknown and scary to something spellbinding and surreal. Our bodies in the water are black, lit from below, while neon blue reflects off the bottom of Derio’s strong jaw and alights in his dark eyes.
He kisses me, his lips wet and salty. His hands slide up and down my sides as he swims forward and I glide backward until I’m pressed against the side of the cave.