This week’s Biblioshelf Musings took me a dark, deceptive trip down memory-lane to the fascinating art-world of Italy. The Favour by Laura Vaughan is a tricksy, mind-bending novel filled with a cunningly unreliable narrator, an insight into the lavish lifestyles of the social elite all framed with the overarching question, just how far would you go to fit in? Huge thanks to Readers First and the publishers Corvus for providing me a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review.
Book: The Favour by Laura Vaughan
Genre: Fiction (Thriller / Mystery)
Publication Date: 4th March 2021
Synopsis (from Goodreads)
When she was thirteen years old, Ada Howell lost not just her father, but the life she felt she was destined to lead. Now, at eighteen, Ada is given a second chance when her wealthy godmother gifts her with an extravagant art history trip to Italy.
In the palazzos of Venice, the cathedrals of Florence and the villas of Rome, she finally finds herself among the kind of people she aspires to be: sophisticated, cultured, privileged. Ada does everything in her power to prove she is one of them. And when a member of the group dies in suspicious circumstances, she seizes the opportunity to permanently bind herself to this gilded set.
But everything hidden must eventually surface, and when it does, Ada discovers she’s been keeping a far darker secret than she could ever have imagined…
At the start of the story we are immediately thrown into Ada’s world of grief and upheaval as she faces leaving behind her lifestyle and ancestral home upon the death of her father. After a move to London and a generous offer from a wealthy relative, Ada embarks upon an art history adventure travelling through Italy as a Dilletante. For Ada, this is the break she has always desired, to discover her true purpose and destiny within a world of like-minded people. The trouble is, fitting in with the social elite isn’t always as easy as it seems (not when you have secrets to hide) – and after a tragic accident at a party, the relationships between the travel buddies is severely tested as they return home and try to go on living their usual lives amidst its aftermath.
Ada was a thrillingly complicated and unreliable narrator. Her character arc was spectacularly crafted and took me on an incredible journey of shifting emotions. My empathy towards her varied greatly at different episodes in the story. Her feelings of mis-identity and that strong yearning to fit in with her fellow Dilletantes showed you this sense of loneliness and vulnerability which she must have been feeling – but then in the next breath, her fabrication of particular gestures or her backstory and her yearning to fit in has you wondering just what type of person she truly is. Her voice gave off a sense of dissociation which was intriguing; was she actually witnessing her life from outside of her body or was she truly experiencing all of those emotions and events from within her own head? In part, it reminded me of Eleanor’s narrative voice in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
“Attempting to make myself indispensable had hollowed me out.”
As we got deeper into the plot and some of the Dilletantes started to reveal their true motives, it really made me wonder what kind of reality Ada was missing out on due to her tunnel-visioned focus into this lifestyle that she’d only ever been on the periphery of? The way the ‘favour’ masked Ada’s guilt at being an accomplice and her vehement self-denial was the flipside of a split-personality which just craved friendship and belonging. The multi-facetedness of her character and the tantalisingly dark plot twists gave this novel an unpredictability which I found fascinating to read.
Being set in Italy was such a draw for me. Travelling to Venice, Florence and Rome was one of my favourite and most memorable holidays so it was almost like journeying back to the past to see those places again through Ada’s eyes. I was immediately transported into those gloriously artisan surroundings with tavernas, canals and piazzas oozing with creativity and delicious food (and wine!). Vaughan’s lyrical writing helped to bring that Italian world to life in a way that made me want to keep on reading and exploring those galleries and museums with their beauty and Renaissance charm.
The technicalities of the artwork were expressed in a way which I found intriguing without being too overwhelming. I still couldn’t define for you what a pentimento is, but I enjoyed the way that some of those art techniques and famous paintings/sculptures tied in to the themes and plot of the novel.
I loved how sentient the ‘favour’ seemed to be and how it was used and moulded by several different characters all for their own motives. At first, the favour seemed to be created out necessity and tragedy, an act of quick-thinking combined with the desperation of trying to protect someone whilst at the same time cementing your place within their world. As the plot unravels, that same favour spiralled and shifted out of control leaving you to wonder who was the real puppet-master manipulating its strings. All of that drama made for such mind-bending reading and the plot twists came thick and fast right up until the very end.
“The Welsh have a word: hiraeth. It’s basically untranslatable, but it means the grief you feel for the lost places of your past. And something more: a longing for a home or time that may have never been.”
In a similar way, Ada’s ancestral home, Garreg Las, almost became one of the characters itself – always waiting there in the depths of Ada’s subconscious, an explicit reminder of how the house ties itself to Ada’s sense of identity and belonging. Sometimes it could be a status symbol to prove that Ada was a part of the Dilletante world, whereas at other times it was a refuge, a little corner of Wales that Ada felt she was truly home. I loved the way it would appear at different intervals within the narrative, like a guest star who makes special appearances and has to ensure they find their way into the encore before the final curtain fall.Overall, The Favour is a tremendously well-constructed story with Vaughan giving you teeny segments at a time whilst slowly building up to that spectacular final twist. Ada’s narration had me constantly second-guessing if I could trust her or whether in some ways she truly is a victim of her own making or sheer circumstance. Combining that dark and twisty narrative with the wondrously charming Italian surroundings made The Favour such a compelling read, and although at the start of the novel I was readily signing myself up a Dilletanti Discoveries style adventure… let’s just say I’d definitely be a little warier about trusting my fellow travel buddies after reading this!
Why Should I Read This?
For a superbly written unreliable narrator who has you questioning her motives right up to the end.
For the richly decadent Italian settings – the perfect wanderlust quencher in a lockdown world.
For the psychological questioning of friendship and what it truly means to belong and fit in.