I tend to not be able to resist books that feature teens on summer adventures in Europe (especially if they promise a bit of romance). I've been burned by a lot of these books, but Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch is one that didn't disappoint on any level and left me fully satisfied at the end.
Lina is spending the summer in Florence with the father she has never met. It was the dying wish of her mother who died of cancer a few months before Lina arrives. Determined to only be there for the summer and then return to the US, Lina is not at all excited about forced bonding time with Howard and definitely doesn't want to settle in. She is here only for her mother. When an old friend of her dad's gives her the journal her mother kept during her time in Italy, Lina knows she has to read it no matter how sad it makes her feel. Armed with the journal and the help of her new friend Lorenzo, Lina sets out to follow her mother's footsteps from all those years ago and figure out a little about life, love, her parents, and herself along the way.
I was bound to like Lina. She is a smart introvert who likes to process things with no outside interference and is a bit tentative in her approach to life. Personal affinities aside, her character really does jump of the page. She is incredibly well-rounded. Sad and a little lost since her mother's death, she is keeping everyone at arm's length but you can see the warmth in how she interacts with her longtime best friend on the phone. Her relationship with Ren (short for Lorenzo) also showcases a different dimension of her personality. With every interaction Lina has, the reader sees a different facet of who she is. Ren is a local half Italian half America who befriends Lina and tries to help her meet people and fit in. He then joins her quest to recapture the events and investigate the mysteries in her mom's journal. Their relationship is adorable. They have an instant connection where they are able to talk openly with each other that leads them to become friends quickly. Underneath all that is a romantic tension as they circle each other in that sense too. They end up having some dramatic moments that are typical of teens unused to navigating the messy emotions involved in falling for another person and everything about their relationship is real and believable.
The romance is not the main focus of the novel however. The main focus is Lina's journey of discovery and how she relates to all the people around her (not just Ren). Her relationship with Howard, the surprise father who lives in Italy she never met before is a driving force in the novel as well. I can't say much about this, but Howard is a really really great man. In getting to know him and his story with her mother, Lina also connects with her mother in a different way than she did when her mother was alive. Despite the heavier themes inherent in that, the book manages to maintain a light, humorous feel all the way through. There are so many delightful scenes.
Welch paints all of Italy so well. I love Florence and really felt like I was back there when reading some of her descriptions. And man did I really want some authentic Italian Gelato. A lot of times when I read books set in Europe I feel like they are lacking authenticity or a true sense of place. That wasn't the case here. I liked how Welch interspersed Italian into it as well. She didn't just say someone was speaking Italian, she wrote the Italian. This helped with the authentic feel.
This was so much fun to read and think it is a must have for Teen librarians. It will appeal to the same crowd who enjoys Kasie West's books, but I think it may have a broader appeal than that too.