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Review: If You Could Go Anywhere by Paige Toon

If You Could Go Anywhere 
Paige Toon
Penguin Random House AUS
2019, 432p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Angie has always wanted to travel. But at 29, she has still never left her small mining town in the Australian outback. When her grandmother passes away, Angie finally feels free to see the world – until she discovers a letter addressed to the father she never knew and is forced to question everything.

As Angie sets off on her journey to find the truth – about her family, her past and who she really is – will enigmatic stranger Alessandro help guide the way?

Last year I read my first book by Paige Toon and absolutely loved it. She became a must-read on the strength of that alone and I was really excited about this book.

Angie has lived her whole life in the South Australian outback opal mining town of Coober Pedy where most of the residents live underground in caves carved into the rock to escape the relentless heat. Angie has always longed to travel – in fact her most asked question of people she meets is the title of the book – ‘if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?’. The fact that Coober Pedy attracts a lot of travellers and backpackers means that Angie gets to meet and befriend people from all over the world and when circumstances trap her there, caring for her grandmother as she ails late in life, she’s able to live vicariously through others and explore the world from her home.

When her grandmother dies, not only is she suddenly free of responsibility for the first time in a long time, Angie also discovers something that gives her some direction. She finds herself travelling to Italy to meet family she never knew she had and all of a sudden, a whole new life with possibilities opens up before her eyes. No longer is she alone in the world, her Australian relatives all gone, her friends moved to Adelaide and getting on with their lives, marrying and having children. Angie is suddenly embraced and made part of something new.

Despite being the son of Sicilian migrants, my husband has zero interest in seeing Italy. Apart from feeding people, he doesn’t really seem to connect with that side of his heritage which is perhaps a product of his upbringing in a small country town and also timing, where immigrants and the children thereof were basically made to stamp out a lot of that difference in order to fit in. No speaking other languages in public, no ‘strange food’ at school, no foreign names. They were Anglicised and shortened in quick order.

But me? Seventh generation born Australian? I’d love to go to Italy! And this book taps right into that because I think I’d feel just like Angie does when she arrives, minus the complicated feelings about meeting family that she didn’t know existed until just recently. Angie gets to explore and see Italy through such fresh eyes and her delight at everything is infectious. This is a love letter to Italian architecture, scenery, food and culture and I loved every bit of that. Angie’s family run a restaurant (I was going to say an Italian restaurant then, which is a bit redundant, given it’s in Italy). Angie is shown around by Alessandro, a handsome and charming man who works at her father’s restaurant and even though they’re loosely connected, they are not actually family. Alessandro lives a free spirit sort of life, spending months travelling around the world in his Kombi van, popping back to the restaurant to work when the money runs out. Although he’s light hearted and fun, Angie glimpses a melancholy side of Alessandro that she immediately wants to know more about.

The romance wasn’t my favourite part of the story. Maybe this is just the fact that I’m getting old now, but I found Alessandro tedious at times, with his lack of responsibility and callous way that he often treated the family that cared about him. I think the reveal of Alessandro’s feelings and how deeply scarred he is by the events of his childhood comes a bit too late – or at least it did for me, because I’d already had rather a lot of “carefree Alessandro who doesn’t care about this or that” and it was enough to see him as a bit of an annoying man child who doesn’t commit to anything is happy to break hearts in various ways as he goes off on his daredevil adventures. That’s not actually an accurate portrayal of Alessandro and he hides a lot from the world, which Angie, with her dedication and a nature that desires to help people, slowly uncovers. The thing is, Angie and her love for him and his finally revealing his pain aren’t a magic fix either (just a start) and it was clear that Alessandro was always going to need help to really deal with those feelings and his guilt and live with it in a way that didn’t affect him so deeply. The ending felt a little rushed for me, as it moved towards a conclusion, with all of this spilling out in quite a short time.

A lot of this rings true for me, because visiting my in-laws is very similar to when Angie goes to visit parts of her new extended Italian family. The food is familiar, the family relationships are familiar, the mannerisms and expectations are familiar. I really enjoyed experiencing that and the rest of Angie’s adventure through her eyes. Angie was a really lovely character, who had spent a huge portion of her life caring for her grandmother and being there for her after the deaths of both Angie’s grandfather and mother. She also devoted herself to the members of her community, both permanent and transient, befriending those from far away and making them feel more comfortable as well as doing things like learning their languages and how to cook their favourite baked treats from home. She was such a warm and giving person that it was good to see her do some of the things she had wanted to do from very early on – travel, see the world, experience new things. She’s a very selfless and thoughtful character, even with things that make her scared or uncomfortable, she’s always thinking of others and how to make things better for them.

I really enjoyed this, especially the parts devoted to how Angie sees Italy and travelling.

8/10

Book #68 of 2019

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