In A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay, the title character is a “fixer.” She works for an insurance company in restoration, particularly of art pieces, but she also tackles wall damage, toys, even appliances. In the rest of her life, her dysfunctional broken family developed the “fixer” in her as well. When her sister can’t keep a job, Emily has to find a new one for her. When her clients reveal issues beyond the fire damage in their home, she tries to help the visible as well as invisible family problems. She would like to be an artist as well and has a degree of talent, but something is missing.
Though she lives in Chicago, she’s been sent to Atlanta for her most recent assignment, and her company rented space in a conservator’s studio for her work. The proprietor, Joseph, takes her to his aunt and uncle’s Italian restaurant her first night in town, where she meets his brother, Benito, or Ben. Ben is visiting from Italy, where he works in his family’s restaurant, and is helping his aunt and uncle revitalize their place. Immediately attracted to Ben, Emily agrees to help him restore the restaurant in her spare time. They fall in love (no spoiler, as this happens early in the book and is mentioned in the summary on the back), marry, and she accompanies him back to Italy.
But it’s no fairy tale honeymoon. Ben’s mother doesn’t approve and feels hurt that she was left out of her son’s wedding. Much of the family lets her know in covert ways that she doesn’t fit in. She feels constantly in the way, and efforts to help usually end up making things worse. Ben’s time away has left the family restaurant in a mess, so he’s working all hours to get things back in shape. Only Lucio, Ben’s father, shows Emily any kind of warmth or welcome, and later, Ben’s sister Francesca does as well.
Emily’s fixer mode kicks in, but without understanding the background of the issues, the family, and the culture, her advice and actions backfire. She has to learn that everything can’t be fixed, and furthermore, it’s not always her job to try. But somehow amidst all the pain, she finds a new freedom in her own art.
Yet when she unwittingly stumbles across a long-hidden family secret, it seems to be the last straw, for her as well as Ben’s mother. Will all the relationships shatter, or can they find the grace to heal?
One of Reay’s hallmarks is the wealth of literary allusions in her books. There didn’t seem to me to be quite as many this time, and they mainly came in Lucio’s book recommendations to Emily. Sadly, I wasn’t familiar with most of them, but one I did know was Jane Austen’s Emma. One review at Amazon mentioned this book was a nod to Emma. I hadn’t really caught that – the plots aren’t similar, but Emma and Emily do share “fixer” tendencies (and name similarities I just noticed.) I wished I had thought of that in the passages where Emily discussed her thoughts on Emma.
Reay also usually writes Christian fiction, and around 3/4 of the way into the book, I realized that aspect was absent, and Emily herself seemed woefully ignorant about the Bible or spiritual things. But it does come through in the end. Since it’s in Italy, it’s heavily Catholic-flavored, but the need and provision for grace do come through.
Reay infuses the book with a lot of detail about art restoration, Italy, and Italian cooking, but it flows naturally and nothing sounds overly technical. I almost felt like I could see the sunflowers out the window and smell some rich sauce simmering in the kitchen.
I loved her characters here, especially Emily, Ben, and Lucio, but all of them are well fleshed-out.
This was a book that pulled me in and made me want to spend all day curled up with it.
Update: Here is an interview with the author about this book, her blog, and the C. S. Lewis roots to her stories. It’s an excerpt from a longer interview here.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)