Book Review: The Invitation

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I do hope The Invitation is one you can squeeze in before you pack in your summer reading! For me, this book also brought about thoughts of Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. I know so many loved Beautiful Ruins, myself included, so I do hope this will be enough of an enticement for you to grab it before summer comes to its end!

I thought of Beautiful Ruins as a comparison read because in many ways, Foley has also penned a sort of love story to Italy, and movie star characters.  Each of the Italian cities visited by this group of characters in The Invitation is beautifully communicated. Descriptions like:

Portofino, gleaming expansively in the sun. Portofino is a place of self-conscious restraint. But Hal…sees wealth everywhere: in the waterfront villas half-hidden in the trees, in the quietly spectacular speedboats tethered in the turquoise harbour.  Above them all towers a majestic castle, wreathed in trees.

I must say however that the blurbs on the back referencing this as a “dazzling romance” have missed the point of this book entirely. (I’m certain those that describe it as this, truly did not read it through.)  This does a terrible disservice to the book actually, and may turn readers away, as they may imagine it to be a romance novel. To me, it was nothing of the sort! It is a story of obsession, possession, secrets and control over women.  That is not “dazzling romance” or romantic in any way.

The story alternates from the viewpoints of two characters. There is Hal, a journalist escaping his sad past by squeaking out some kind of paltry existence in Rome. His journalist friend fobs off an invitation to a swanky black tie affair, so that Hal will go in his place. There, Hal meets the Contessa, and discovers she is the one throwing this party, all in order to have a movie she is very passionate about made. While at the party, Hal meets a mysterious and beautiful woman. They have a one night stand and he never anticipates seeing her again.

Later, the Contessa tracks Hal down and offers him an exotic assignment. She wants him to write journalistic pieces while travelling on board a yacht down the Italian coast, as they travel to their final destination in Cannes where the movie will be featured. On board the yacht with the Contessa, will be the actors, directors, and the financial backers of the film.

The other viewpoint is told by Her. The “Her” being Stella, (or Estrella as we will later learn), and she is the woman from the party, the one Hal had the one night stand with. Turns out, Stella is married to the financial backer of the Contessa’s film. Therefore, the husband and Stella are also on board the yacht, an uncomfortable situation for both Hal and Stella. Stella’s husband is a controlling man with hints of a dangerous, abusive person simmering below the surface. Stella is very cautious, wary and fearful around him and is deeply unimpressed to find Hal travelling with them.

At first, I was greatly perplexed or perhaps bothered that Stella’s chapters were always only referenced as “Her”, while Hal’s chapters were always entitled, “Hal”. Why would the author do this? Why would she not identify Stella by her name? Well, as the story went along, and Stella’s past is slowly revealed- a past she reluctantly shares with Hal, and guards with fierce determination. This slow build to discovering Stella’s past, her identity and the reasons why she would marry such a controlling and abusive man makes for very compelling reading!  I began to realize that the chapters were called Her as she really wasn’t the Stella she is in 1953, nor is she the Estrella from her past, in 1936.

“I worked to extinguish every trace of my old accent, every vestige of the girl I had once been.”

The Invitation has this very mysterious, slow burning feeling to it. Everyone has their secrets, hidden pasts, regrets and deep scars – a recurring theme hasn’t this been in many of the books I’ve read this summer??!! There is this lurking tension of power, obsession and possessiveness throughout that had me staying up late into the night to finish reading. I also wondered at times if there would be a twist to its end, and there is a bit of one, I think the readers will see it as a twist… I certainly did, and at times, almost wondered if this was all part of a grand set up for Hal?

“She laughs nervously. ‘Have you noticed how we keep seeming to end up alone together? It’s almost as though someone is conspiring for it to happen.” (Stella to Hal)

Very good reading! Highly recommend!

Literary Hoarders Penny