A Family For Keeps
A Family for Keeps is a book I enjoyed more for its individual moments than for the overall story. It’s an uneven read, with a few weaknesses and elements that didn’t quite work for me, but Lucy Gordon delivers some potent emotional scenes and powerful moments nonetheless.
One cold winter night in Venice, a homeless old man finds a young woman huddled in a dark alley. He introduces himself as Piero and helps her back to the house where he’s staying. The Palazzo di Montese is the ancestral home of the di Montese clan, now empty because the current count can’t afford the upkeep. Though the utilities are shut off, it’s a good enough place for someone with nowhere else to go. Piero gets by with some help from Vincenzo, a local restaurant owner, who gives him the leftovers from his restaurant. What neither of them tell her is that Vincenzo is also the current Count di Montese and owner of the Palazzo, who lets his old friend stay there.
The woman tells them to call her Julia, though they suspect that’s not her real name. All that matters is that she’s clearly a lost soul, which is something with which they can both empathize. Piero is a former university professor who lost his mind when his daughter drowned while sailing. Every day he goes to the docks to wait for her return, fully believing she’ll come back someday. Vincenzo can’t afford the palazzo because his father gambled the family fortune away before killing himself, forcing his son to deal with the mess he’d made. His beloved twin sister Bianca recently died in a car accident with her husband, leaving Vincenzo to raise his niece and nephew. Fragile, haunted Julia fits right in. She has nowhere to go and obviously has a dark past of her own, so the two men let her stay.
The story starts out with a very unreal, almost ethereal feel. I liked some of the Gothic touches, with the empty palazzo and the way Julia is constantly drawn to a portrait of Annina, a legendary Venetian girl who was imprisoned by her husband and whose child was taken from her. But while I enjoyed the stylishness of it, the characters were so difficult to connect with that I had trouble getting into the story. The author keeps Julia a mystery to the reader for too long, revealing little of what’s going on inside her head. We don’t know anything about her except that she’s tormented, so few of her actions make much sense. It was hard to empathize with her, or feel anything for her at all, as a result. My favorite character in the first half of the book was Piero. I think much of that had to do with how vivid his personality is and how his story is made clear early on.
After a few chapters, Julia’s past is revealed and the story switches gears. In some ways it feels like a different book entirely, dropping the Gothic feel for a more modern sensibility. This part of the story worked better for me. Once we learn the truth about Julia, the emotional stakes are raised and it was easier to become involved in her story. I don’t want to say too much, even though the back cover basically gives away the entire plot. What I will say is that Julia is searching for a child she lost under devastating circumstances – if you buy this book, try and avoid that back cover until you’ve read it.
The story is written in an old-fashioned style that might not work for readers used to the deeper characterization of a more contemporary book. After a while, the author gives us more than enough reason to understand and sympathize with the characters, but I never felt invited into their hearts and minds the way a more contemporary novel accomplishes. They remain too remote, and Vincenzo in particular felt underdeveloped. Other than his history, we learn little about him as a person, and he comes across as a little bland.
There are a lot of weaknesses I could mention, starting with the romance. They fall into bed far too soon and with very little motivation. Thereafter the love story is mostly overshadowed by the drama surrounding Julia’s search for her child. Some of the characters’ reactions in certain moments seemed off. The author covers a lot of ground in 187 pages and doesn’t always pull it off with the most grace. Parts of the story feel rushed or glossed over.
And yet, as uneven as the story was overall, the author sprinkles her tale with a number of powerful scenes and absolutely killer emotional moments. I got a lump in my throat more than once. While the love story is merely okay, the story of Julia’s search for her child is involving and very well done. There are several potent scenes along the way that pack a real emotional punch. Meanwhile, the subplot with Piero is quite poignant and pays off in a very nicely played moment. There are some remarkably insightful passages that are beautifully written, and the book’s closing lines are lovely. It’s one of the nicest endings I’ve read in a romance in some time.
The emotional moments were so powerful I considered recommending the book. Overall, I don’t think it’s quite strong enough to warrant that, but it was still an enjoyable read and the kind of book I could imagine becoming a comfort read. Those key scenes are so effective they deserve to be savored more than once. A Family for Keeps is a mixed bag that has its flaws, but readers looking for an emotional read may find it worth a look.