Before I begin my review, let me take a moment to say how much I love this cover! While I agree with the age old saying that one mustn’t judge a book by its cover, nothing can explain the excitement I feel when I see aesthetically pleasing designs. I suppose we have the advent of bookstagram to thank for this – even though I don’t get the “books as an accessory” trend, I do applaud the effort publishers now put into creating beautifully illustrated covers. You can read more about how bookstagramming has changed the publishing industry here. But now that I have got my little bookish rambling aside, I’m going to delve straight into The Italian Teacher‘s plot, which is, funnily enough, is set in the art world!
Charles ‘Pinch’ Bavinsky, the novel’s protagonist, is the son of Natalie, a Canadian potter, and Bear, a celebrated American artist. Bear, who is famous for his still life paintings, has a larger than life personality – he has never been short of female admirers, and he really knows how to please a crowd! But however accomplished Bear may be in the realm of the art, he is an absolute Asshole, with a capital A, when it comes to his personal life!
Bear Bavinsky is one of the most narcissistic characters I’ve ever come across! Bear only cares about his art and himself, but even when he runs away to New York with a woman who’d become his fourth (but not last) wife, Pinch can’t stop loving his father. When Pinch was little, I watched him with sadness as he tried to justify his father’s absence to his school mates, and hide the pain he must have felt when he and Natalie were left behind in Rome. However, once he grew up, I loathed the spineless man Pinch had become who was still willing to put Bear on a pedestal!
The Italian Teacher is a powerful exploration of how parents can make or break their children. While Pinch was growing up, Natalie was his constant champion – she recognized Pinch’s talent for art, and encouraged him to pursue it. But Bear, with a couple of sentences, managed to crush Pinch’s dream of becoming an artist when Pinch was merely fifteen! It was gut-wrenching to read how easy it was for Bear to dismiss a painting Pinch had poured his heart into, saying Pinch will never be an artist. Pinch doesn’t touch a brush for decades after that, and his relationship with Natalie too becomes somewhat strained – taking his father’s words to heart, Pinch blames his mother for not seeing that he has “no talent!” – although Pinch keeps at trying to please his father in other ways.
The life Pinch leads is nothing short of pitiable. I was amazed at how blind he was when it came to Bear, even though I could see why he was craving for his father’s approval. Bear was never emotionally available to Pinch (or any of his other sixteen children! And yes, you read it right! 😀 ), leading Pinch to attach his self-worth to the attention Bear would give him. Because of this, quite unsurprisingly, all of Pinch’s relationships fail while he tries to measure up to Bear’s expectations.
But I suppose that this is what makes The Italian Teacher‘s ending so ingenious. It’s only at the very end of his life that Pinch manages to throw off the shackles of his past, and become his own man. It is such a reversal of events brilliantly executed by Rachman, and I appreciated that he let Pinch have the last laugh!
The Italian Teacher is my first five-star read in fourteen months! The story worked for me, and so did the tidbits about the art world. But I know what I’ve written above about the plot might be off-putting to some who may feel it’s a sad story all around. It’s not, though! Sure, Pinch struggles a lot to find his way, but when he does, it injects a certain amount of quirky, dark humor into the story, which I feel makes this a worthwhile read. So I definitely recommend this one!
Note: Many thanks to Penguin Books for sending me a review copy of The Italian Teacher.