“My Year With The Italian Girl”

by Rita Plush

“My Year With The Italian Girl”

by Linda Leuzzi


Solstice Publishing


Award-winning journalist and former editor of the Long Island Advance, Linda Leuzzi sets her novel in Bellport Long Island, the story told from alternating points of view of Francesca, the Italian exchange student; Vivian, her host and editor of the local newspaper; and Keisha, co-captain of the high school Step Squad. Step, as in a form of dance with strong percussive beats, hand claps and footsteps that derive from ancient African tribal dances. (I didn’t have a clue either.)

“What have I done,” Francesca thinks as the plane touches down, “I am to arrive in America to live with a woman I have never met.”

“Oh, God. What am I doing here?” Vivian thinks as she waits for her charge at the airport. A do-it-all kinda gal with a job that is full-time plus, she wonders if, as student host, she has stretched herself too far.

“In this world you need goals,” is what Keisha’s mom and dad have instilled in her. Her goal this year is to win the regional Step championship.

Vivian becomes Francesca’s mom-away-from-mom and does all she can to help her charge adjust to her new life. But Francesca still misses her family, their leisurely dinners where everything from “local and national politics to the latest neighbor who thinks he is from outer space is discussed.” In America,” she journals, “it seems as if everyone can’t wait to finish dinner and prepare for work.” She does like our approach to education though, where there’s more give and take between student and teacher than in Italy where teachers rule. She’s funny too, trying to make sense of our idioms. “There,” she says. “I have taken the cow by the horns. How do Americans make these things up?”

She joins the Step Squad, and Keisha, seeing that Francesca “wants to learn and be really good,” takes Francesca under her wing and gives her extra time and training for the competition.  Coming from a family of hardworking, church-going Blacks – a lawyer and a limo driver, a bishop; a grandfather was a Grumman engineer – Keisha admires dedication and commitment. And it shows in her preparation for the competition; she calls into action Broadway-dancing star, beautiful Aunt Lea, to coach the Squad.  

Will auntie’s mentoring win the competition? – Moi? I’ll never tell.

To stir more intrigue into the plot there’s a challenge afoot for Vivian. Someone wants her to kill her article on the former Wiley estate, 100 acres of wetlands developers are keen on developing and 100 trees cut down with the deal. Civic and conservation groups are up in arms, and Vivian is armed with some nasty goings on regarding the property. Her boss wants her to close down the exposé; she might be in danger. But Vivian keeps at it – even a bop on the head won’t stop her – “it wasn’t a biggie” – leading to a crooked businessman and a surprise visit from Kathleen Wiley.

So, you don’t think it’s all work and no play for Vivian, hardworking editor and exchange student host that she is, there’s the handsome Brit next door, who wants to take her mind off that divorce of hers she keeps picking at.

As the paper’s editor, Vivian comes by interesting bits she shares with readers, from oysters – they can filter up to 50 gallons of bay water a day – to the genius composer Bellini, who could sing an aria at 18 months, which author Leuzzi weaves into the narrative at just the right time.

Not so with Vivian’s relationship with her parents, and their backgrounds; they took me away from Francesca and Keisha’s blossoming friendship and the team’s grueling preparation for the competition. And as for Vivian’s divorce, a paragraph or two would have done it, rather than pages.

“My Year With The Italian Girl” is an openhearted story about people with dissimilar backgrounds and of different races who show up in each other’s lives and are changed by the experience. They learn about each other and themselves. Young from old, old from young. Embracing their differences and celebrating their similarities. An exchange of the best kind. 

Leuzzi is no stranger to exchange students and Step Squads. Years ago, she mentored a Sicilian exchange student, then heard of a Step program in Bellport High School involving Black and white teens. She put the two together and her exchange student became Francesca and the co-captain of the Step Squad morphed into Keisha. A “what if” story readers can now enjoy. Check out lindaleuzzi.com for more of her accomplishments.