Review: “The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days” by Kate Holden [2010]

I adore Kate Holden and have great admiration for her and her writing. Her fortnightly columns in Saturday Age and her musings on her website are filled with wit and a wry sense of humour. I also loved her first autobiography In My Skin.

So it really pains me to say that her second autobiography left me quite disappointed. The Romantic follows up after the seemingly ‘happily ever after’ in the first book where Kate kicked her heroin addiction, left her job as a prostitute and finally got herself sorted enough to get on a plane and leave for Italy and to make a clean break. (Note: you don’t need to have read the first book in order to understand the second). In Italy, Kate, now twenty-nine, roams listlessly between Rome and Naples and have a long string of affairs. The book is basically a description of her string of affairs and sexual escapades in Italy. She wanders through the sights, learns some Italian, writes in her diary and reads the romantic poets in her spare time.

The book is divided and titled on the man Kate is happening to have an affair or sex with. There is Jack, a married man twice her age; Guido, a cheeky hotel worker; Massimo, Guido’s cheekier and charismatic brother; Rufus, a writer; Gabriele, a charming, hardworking and sweet Italian man; Donetella, a woman who gets entangled with Kate and Gabriele; and finally, Kate alone. There is a lot of sex. Kate likes sex, that point is clear, but there seems to be very little character development and the pacing stumbles with its aimlessness, perhaps intentional to capture Kate’s own feeling of aimlessness. There is also the struggle within Kate as she tries to distinguish herself between the Prostitute Kate and Clean Kate. Men seem to fall instantly in love with Kate and she does not discourage them. In being with so many different men and giving herself so easily and freely, it seemed like she was trying to find acceptance somehow and a place for her somewhere, anywhere, in society although almost all the men Kate was with were all unavailable one way or another.

In a moment he’s gone. She watches them drive away. This is the city where they met; they have said goodbye here before.

‘You are in my heart,’ he had said.

‘You are my heart,’ she replied.

But her heart is gone. She was always trying to give it away. – p. 233

Despite being let down by the book, the writing is beautiful even when the content is crude. The whole idea of identity is at play here (as it tends to be when a book is an autobiography!) and Kate really loses and distances herself as she refers to herself in third person in the book as if to point out that the Kate then is not the Kate now.

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9 comments

  1. I have this book on my TBR and hope to read it soon … I heard her interviewed a few weeks ago and the third person issue was discussed. She said a couple of things. One was that she felt her first book was narcissistic by being in first person (even though it was a memoir) and another was that she did start out by planning to write this as a novel and when she decided to make it a memoir decided to keep the third person because, as you surmised, she could keep a critical distance about her former self!

    1. I’m jealous that you got to hear Kate talk! I was going to see her at launching her book at Readings but it was the Grand Final (take 2) arvo and the traffic was bad. I do remember reading that she was intending to write a novel. I was a bit disappointed that she didn’t decide to because I think she’ll write some great fiction.

  2. The title held so much promise for me, being passionate about all things Italian, but now…not so much. I’m glad you spoke so honestly about the events in this novel; I’m sure I would feel the same way about it: a tad disappointed. (Somehow, I’m reminded of Eat, Pray, Love which I loathed. 😉

    1. Don’t let the copious amount of sex put you off! The description and Kate’s immersion in Italian culture is very admirable and brave. I was never interested in Eat, Love, Pray although I do love the premise of it (even though I’ve since heard that Gilbert was already asked to write about her experience). Who would want to take off for a year and just ‘discover’ themselves?

  3. Mae, I feel you are being unfair to Holden. You seem to have judged The Romantic as a fiction, rather than a memoir. I’m not sure what exactly it is that you find the book disappointing, other than perhaps it doesn’t live up to your expectation of a good novel. I might well be reading you wrong, please feel free to correct me.

    May I refer you to the review by Felicity Plunkett in the Nov 2010 issue of the Australian Book Review? I think it has many perceptive things to say about The Romantic.

    I think The Romantic is an extremely complex book, and a reader’s engagement with the book would benefit from more than one reading.

    And I must disagree with you, Mae, I think it’s vital that one reads In My Skin first before The Romantic.

    1. Jason, no, I judged it as a memoir. Personally (and this is just my personal opinion of what a memoir should entail), a memoir should at the very least show some change or growth of character, for better or worse or some lessons learned. The Romantic, I felt, while a good read and some beautiful writing, remains rather stagnant. Perhaps that is the intention of the author – that the writing should illustrate the subject’s stagnation during that period of life but the memoir is overall a book and I feel that there should be at least some progression. ‘In My Skin’ for example, has Kate as an undergrad, her spiral down and time as a prostitute and heroin addict and then her recovery. But Kate here, in putting herself in third person, may be attempting to push the bounderies of memoir writing. 🙂

      I maintain my opinion that one does not need to read In My Skin first. I think The Romantic works well as a stand-alone memoir but as with all other sequels, the reader may get more out of it if one read the beginning beforehand.

  4. Bellezza, I would like to encourage you to give The Romantic a try and judge for yourself, rather than put off by one review. It’s nothing like Eat, Pray, Love.

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