Belladonna by Anbara Salam

Belladonna is a story of obsession, friendship, and desire set at an Academy that is connected to a convent in Northern Italy. In Connecticut in 1956, Bridget desperately wants to be Isabella’s friend, and to study at the Academy together. The Academy is where a small group of American girls learn Italian and art history, lodging in a convent with nuns who’ve taken a vow of silence, and Bridget sees this as her chance to be close to Isabella. The following year, they both start there, and they do grow close, but Bridget stays desperate for Isabella’s affection, as well as keeping up lies about her own family, and she’ll resort to anything to keep Isabella close.

This is a very vividly imagined novel, bringing to life the closed off world of the Academy, its petty dramas, and Bridget’s love for Isabella. It looks at the inability to see the wider picture, or to realise that you cannot only plan for the immediate moments, which works well with a group of fairly self obsessed teenagers. The retro setting is important for the general aesthetic and for the narrative (considering half of the girls are engaged), but it also has a sense of being outside of time because of them being in the Academy amongst the nuns. The vibe and setting (and the obsession theme) make it easy to compare to The Talented Mr Ripley, but this is more of a coming of age novel, as Bridget learns that just being obsessed with and manipulating circumstances to be with Isabella doesn’t convert into being able to be Isabella’s sole focus.

Some people will love the aesthetic and lingering feel of the novel, whilst others will perhaps find the characters too unlikeable or immature, but this is a look at female friendships and desire, and what it takes to be a particular person, that makes a good immersive read.