This novel is the first one that I’ve read written by Katherine Reay. Now, I’m eager to read others. If A Portrait of Emily Price is an example, Reay has a talent for creating characters who have interesting jobs as well as interesting backstories. Emily is an art restorer and would-be artist, while the man she marries, Benito Vasallo (Ben) is a chef. We learn a great deal about Emily’s work while we salivate reading about the dishes turned out by Ben. The story begins in Atlanta, but soon we are transported to a small town in Italy, where the settings come alive with Reay’s descriptions.
At the heart of Reay’s story is the romance between Emily and Ben. Emily meets Ben while working for Ben’s brother, Joseph, who runs an art restoring facility in Atlanta. Ben has temporarily relocated to the states to rescue Piccollo, a restaurant owned by his aging aunt and uncle, who hope to sell the place, but need to increase business first. Ben is determined to help his relatives, but there’s another reason for his exile in Atlanta. He will eventually run his family’s restaurant, Coccocino, in Montevello, taking over from his father, who is now in poor health. Even though Ben worked for many years as his father’s sous chef, his mother maintained control of the kitchen and questioned any changes he wanted to make. Ben is hoping that his experience in Atlanta will give him the confidence he needs to return to Italy and show his parents he’s ready to take over Coccocino.
While the physical attraction between Emily and Ben is immediate, on the surface, they seem too different to ever come together as a couple. But they do have one thing in common – challenging relationships with their siblings. Emily’s sister, Amy, has been drifting, spending a lifetime living in Emily’s shadow. “I don’t need you to fix everything,” Amy tells Emily. “I don’t want you to anymore.” Joseph, meanwhile, has not been back to Italy in quite some time. Ben’s efforts to uncover what’s troubling his brother are rebuffed.
After what can only be termed a whirlwind courtship, Emily and Ben are married and head for Montevello. I have to admit at this point, I was holding my breath for Emily. Not being Italian, or even Italian-American, she had no idea what she was in for and I marveled at her bravery. The course of true love never runs smooth, particularly when an Italian family is involved. Most members of Ben’s family are quick to embrace Emily, particularly Ben’s father, Lucio, who is soon sharing afternoons and books with his new daughter-in-law. Ben’s mother, however, is a tough nut to crack. When Emily takes it upon herself to give romantic advice to Ben’s sister, she sets off a firestorm that threatens her relationship with everyone in the family.
Emily is asked by Lucio to uncover a fresco in the local church. After the priest gives her permission to begin the work, Emily spends whatever free time she has slowly removing layers of paint to reveal what’s underneath. Lucio asks her not to tell anyone in the family what she’s doing, not even Ben. She’s astonished with what she finds. The painting depicts a familiar scene from the Bible, but one that also has a lot to do with all those Vasallo family secrets.
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A Portrait of Emily Price