Our first pick: "Love in Idleness" by Amanda Craig
In the opening pages of Amanda Craig's leaf-light summer frolic of a novel, "Love in Idleness," two Italian peasant women ready a Tuscan villa -- eradicating all traces of its previous occupants -- for the vacationers who will soon temporarily inhabit it. "It gave [the guests] the illusion that the house and its gardens and woods were really theirs, and that nobody before them had ever discovered its charms, or its mysteries," Craig writes.
Just as Craig's bi-national cast of characters -- a loose-knit group of family and friends from London and New York enjoying a summer break together -- move into the enchanting and venerable Casa Luna, so Craig herself has opened the shutters, dusted out the cobwebs, fluffed up the bedding, and made herself at home in a classic work: Shakespeare's "Midsummer-Night's Dream," which served as the inspiration for this contemporary work of fiction.
The frothy premise: Polly and Theo Noble, their puckish children, Tania and Robbie, and their assorted pals and relatives -- charming shoe designer Ellen von Berg, aptly named journalist Ivo Sponge, handsome academic Daniel, divorced eye surgeon Hemani and her sweet son Auberon, evil mother-in-law Betty and, later, preening TV gardener Guy -- gather for a holiday. They sun themselves, swim, sup heartily, explore the villa's lush grounds, and dance around love, apparently as foreign to their everyday lives as the idle hours they're whiling away.
Bored, looking for mischief, and in the mood to do a little matchmaking, the children cook up a secret love potion (containing, among other things, Viagra) and conspire to slip it into the grown-ups' drinks. But, well, one thing leads to another, and soon this one's in love with that one, who's in love with the other one ... and, yes, mass confusion ensues. Sound familiar?
In Craig's nimble hands, the familiarity of the story line surrounds the reader like a beloved garden, but fresh twists on familiar themes waft through like, well, like a cool breeze on a warm summer night. Polly (read: Hippolyta) is the put-upon housewife who for too long has sublimated herself to cater to the whims of her spoiled husband and children; these days, her greatest pleasure is reading in preparation for her book-club meeting. Hemani (read: Hermia) is the sweet-souled surgeon who, though divorced, is very much an innocent, struggling to balance her love for her child with her needs as a woman; she's trying to figure out whether she should cash in her morals for a quick, string-free screw. Ellen (read: Helena) is a well-bred go-getter who wants nothing more than to marry well; apparently in possession of a clear understanding of "The Rules," she periodically wonders if she shouldn't maybe have spent her holiday in the Hamptons instead.
To be sure, the topical references can seem a bit overdone at times. And, though she claims to have found inspiration for the children's language in language used by her own kids, Craig seems to go too far into caricature with Tania and Robbie, who with their "Simpsons" references and allegedly Bart-influenced rudeness, are more intensely irritating than impish.
Nevertheless, Craig's bardlike command of the story doesn't waver, and she masterfully conjures the poetic beauty of the Tuscan countryside, making "Love in Idleness" a perfect read for a summer vacation -- or for those in need of one.
-- Amy Reiter