Belladonna by Anbara Salam (Review by Madhura Mukhopadhyay)

2 min read

Rating: 3/5

When the beautiful and popular Isabella joins their school in Connecticut, Bridget can’t help but feel an overwhelming attraction towards her. But ever the wallflower, she watches and craves for a spark of acknowledgement from afar. Life works in inscrutable ways, for once Bridget graduates from school, she is chosen to travel to Italy to spend a year of tutorship at a prestigious art history school in a convent of silent nuns. Among the many other American girls chosen for this scholarship is Isabella.

Anbara Salam’s Belladonna is a tale of obsession. Set in the 1950s in a convent nestled in the beautiful Italian countryside, this is a story of a dangerously one-sided friendship. This premise, I felt made for an alluring read. Still, I felt that the book suffered from some obvious anachronism. While the book is set in the 1950s, much of the descriptions and conversation by the girls felt out of time.

Importantly, there are strong LGBTQ+ elements in this book, events which the characters appear to embrace with open arms. While I am all for the Catholic Church softening its rigid stance on same-sex relationships in 2020, it feels a bit unreal that a convent of nuns and Catholic-raised women would be so accepting in 1950. To write it so, in my opinion, is to negate the very real and painful struggle of an entire community.

This oversight aside, the book has a languorous pace much like a muggy and sweltering afternoon, a calm before the storm, and I felt that it is this sense of anticipation that is the book’s greatest win. As Bridget engineers events to spend more time with Isabella, there is a feeling of impending doom for when things finally come to a head.
All in all, Belladonna is an easy, enticing read but in desperate need of some detailed research on the era the story is set in.

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