Above my head there is pinned a map of the world, the kind you can scratch off once you visit every country. So far, it only has three small scratches. It was a Christmas gift from my family who were, quite honestly, sick of me banging on about wanting to travel. It was a considerable upgrade from my Tumblr era of ‘reblogging’ grainy Parisian photos to my two followers. I had hoped that by now the map would be covered in scattered scratches. But, unfortunately, Covid-19 put a stop to my wanderlust dreams and ensured that my bedroom was the only place I could be. And, as I’m sure we all learnt, four walls can quickly become suffocating. I had always longed to travel, and so having my long-awaited summer exploration cancelled caused my little corner of the world to seem even smaller. A first world problem, I know, but something I really struggled with, nonetheless.
Eventually, I did the one thing I knew how to: I looked for an escape in a book. Since I was a child, books have always seemed to be tiny gateways into worlds far more exciting than my own – a way to explore the world without the need for anything else. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately in the end, I had already blown through my TBR (to be read) pile prior to the lockdown and hadn’t had a chance to restock. And so, I finally picked up a little book that had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time: Under a Dancing Star. Little did I know that I was about to be transported into the most delicious depictions of Italy and presented with a romance that entirely fulfilled my hopeless romantic tendencies.
Laura Wood’s Under a Dancing Star by Laura Wood, is a retelling of Much Ado About Nothing set in 1930s England and Italy and acts as a kind of prequel to Shakespeare’s text. Bea, our leading lady, is a young woman born into a previously wealthy family, facing the pressures of an economically beneficial marriage in order to save her family’s estate. Wishing, however, to pursue the study of science, Bea begins to rebel against her parents, resulting in her removal from the estate and exile to Italy for the summer, where it is hoped that her uncle can straighten her out. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what takes place. In Italy, Bea meets Ben, a charming, charismatic painter who seems to infatuate everyone besides her. Eventually, a deal is made between the pair – Ben must attempt to romance Bea, but the two must promise not to fall in love. I’ll let you guess what happens next.
A perfect cocktail of historical and romantic fiction, this novel offers a spellbinding escape from reality into the beautiful setting of inter-war Italy. Woods’ dream-like depictions of the Italian countryside meant that each time I opened the book I truly felt doused in sunshine and culture, with the romantic plot simply elevating this dream-like quality. Of course, it must be noted that this time period coincides with the rise of Mussolini and fascism, which the book touches on with delicacy, maintaining its escapism without minimising the historical implications of selecting this era. I appreciated this touch, as it almost grounded the novel, preventing it from becoming somewhat too sweet.
The protagonists, Bea and Ben, are witty rivals whose quick retorts and intelligent jokes instantly code them as likeable. In fact, I found them almost comparable to Kat and Patrick from the film 10 Things I hate about you, another Shakespeare retelling. Their love story was one I was enveloped in with ease, the kind that undoubtedly has you questioning your own romantic choices. And, despite being unashamedly YA (Young Adult), the novel carries its Bildungsroman with maturity, offering growth and exploration alongside the clumsy awkwardness characteristic of finding your way in the world.
This novel was just the escapism I needed to forget the insanity of the world, and pursue a dream, even if only for a few hundred pages. And, I would encourage anyone longing to satisfy their wanderlust to pick it up and allow the Italian summer sun to make them fall in love with it.
Image: Dariusz Sankowski via Unsplash