A Mistake of Youth by Elena Genero Santoro
Recommendation Rating: ★★☆☆☆ Only if it’s free and you have nothing else to read.
Please familiarize yourself with my rating system before you fire off angry emails.
Story/Plot: This is exactly the type of book I feared would not be reviewed fairly if I didn’t break the rating down into categories. Objectively, there is precious little plot to be found in the book. There are several different stories, but each lacks proper introduction, confrontation and conclusion. We are thrown into the middle of the each of the stories already at the confrontation, without any interest or attachment to the characters. Because the story bounces between the characters so frequently -there are 82 point of view changes: one per 3.5 pages- we never have time to empathize with the characters.
Characterization: The characters in the book are wonderfully flawed. Each character has a rich past (which, if anything, is not detailed enough) and great personal motivation. Forget your archetypical characters, the cast here includes a post-op transsexual, a death-row inmate, a timid movie star and other characters every bit as flawed, though not nearly as overtly. If their background stories and dialogues had been a bit better, this would have scored much higher. As it is, the backgrounds and motivations are really skimmed over so the author can churn out page after page of superfluous dialog, which has every character speaking in the same voice.
Originality: The story seems quite original. The author is (I think) trying to show that each of the characters had A Mistake of Youth at about the same time, but the consequences of each are varied. From being sentenced to death on the one end, to a possible unknown child on the other. The movie star and transsexual I think are supposed to also be a part of the mistakes though they fell more under the heading of accident of birth. The mistakes all came to a head on November 11th. It was a great idea, but the frequent bounces made the execution very clunky and hard to follow.
Readability: I’m being generous rating the readability at 4/10. I’m doing so because the author wrote the work in Italian and it was translated to English. The translation left a lot to be desired. The sentence structure is often very hard to follow, phrasing is very peculiar for the English language, and the grammar is atrocious. I’m not sure what portion of that is directly the fault of the author and what is the fault of the translator (which I would have guessed to be google translate, as bad as it is, were it not for an actual name being credited for translation) and it wouldn’t be fair to score a zero for faulty translation. If I had a book translated into Italian, how would I know how good the translation was? I don’t speak Italian…
Engagement: The author continually shoots herself in the foot in the engagement category. Perhaps she thinks the reader is too stupid to keep up with the stories of the characters if she doesn’t bounce between them like a tweaker in a narrow hallway, but I suspect she simply didn’t know what the next page was going to be until she started to write it. I say that because there are sections of forty or fifty pages of the book where literally nothing happens. The story (and and the sliver of a plot) don’t move at all for huge chunks while the author churns out page after page of vapid dialogue and arbitrary thoughts. You’ll find yourself skimming through dozens of sections where Patrick weaves his way through exactly the same thought process -for the umpteenth time- while Futura reminds you -again, for the umpteenth time- that she doesn’t trust Elettra anymore. The only reason I am giving any points for engagement is that I actually did want to see what would happen with the death row inmate and potential unknown child enough to read it through instead of skipping to the end. Barely.
Some spoilers and other things that stuck in my mind:
The author seems to be making the statement that we all have a mistake of youth, but the consequences vary greatly. I think that is why she felt it necessary to change character point of view every fourth page (that is not an exaggeration it is the actual math). As a reader, it is insulting that she thinks the story is so complex that it needs to be broken down so thoroughly to be understood. It simply isn’t.
The story could have been very engaging and interesting if handled differently. The author chooses to throw you into the story at the moment of confrontation for all of the characters, without a bit of foreknowledge. She then bounces between the characters so frequently that you scarcely have time to learn any of their names, let alone their stories, before she bounces to the next group again. Frequently that bounce will be for only a few lines of absolutely unnecessary and clunky dialogue. If at least half of the point of view changes were removed, and the same amount of inane and useless dialogue was trimmed, the story would be much more engaging.
The transsexual character was an interesting addition to the story, but like Jar-Jar Binks, absolutely unnecessary. The story is already so disjointed because of the frequent scene swapping that leaving him/her out would have strengthened the story of all the other characters.
We don’t need know everything the character does. If, for instance, a character goes to the restroom, that single line of text is sufficient to catch us up on what is happening. We don’t need three pages describing how they walked to the bathroom, what their motivation for visiting the bathroom was and how the visit made them feel. Unless the lines you are writing are necessary for the development of the characters or advancement of the story, get rid of them. An engaging 150 page book is far better than a boring 300 page book.
Some of the writing is just painfully bad and I suspect that it has nothing to do with translation. The author uses the word ‘had’ as many as sixteen times on some pages. I wish I had a text file of the book to count uses of the word, I bet the number would be several thousand. In this example sentence she uses it five times, “Later they had talked, he had apologized and Futura had had to recognize that although she would have liked a best friend, Philip’s needs were completely different from hers, but she had not taken that into account at all.”(Kindle Locations 1273-1275) That same sentence, disregarding punctuation and grammar, could have been written with only a single use, ‘Later they talked, he apologized and Futura recognized that although she would have liked a best friend, Philip’s needs were completely different from hers, but she had not taken that into account at all.’ A good copy editor, or even a bad copy editor, could have cleaned much of that up and made the story read a lot better.
The author categorizes A Mistake of Youth as both a Crime Thriller and a Psychological Thriller. It is neither of those things. When you put this book down, you will not think about it again for a second. Nothing happens to any of the characters that isn’t described in the first few pages of the book, there are no surprises and the ending is more of an anti-climax. Imagine sitting on your front porch watching children play in the street for two hours. If you consider that a psychological thriller, then you will consider this book a psychological thriller.
Having said all that, the story could have been very engaging if an editor had stripped it to about half of its current length and removed a lot of the unnecessary dialogue. As it stands, it was interesting enough that I read it through, but not interesting enough that I would recommend it if it wasn’t free.