Belladonna

Belladonna

by Anbara Salam

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Overview

A hypnotizing coming-of-age novel set in 1950s Italy that stares into the heart of longing and at the friendships that have the power to save and destroy us.

"I was utterly captivated, from first page to last." —Anton DiSclafani, New York Times bestselling author of The After Party

Isabella is beautiful, inscrutable, and popular. Her best friend, Bridget, keeps quietly to the fringes of their Connecticut Catholic school, watching everything and everyone, but most especially Isabella.

In 1957, when the girls graduate, they land coveted spots at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Pentila in northern Italy, a prestigious art history school on the grounds of a silent convent. There, free of her claustrophobic home and the town that will always see her and her Egyptian mother as outsiders, Bridget discovers she can reinvent herself as anyone she desires... perhaps even someone Isabella could desire in return.

But as that glittering year goes on, Bridget begins to suspect Isabella is keeping a secret from her, one that will change the course of their lives forever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593099346
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 778,754
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Anbara Salam is half-Palestinian and half-Scottish and grew up in London. She has a PhD in Theology and is now living and working in Oxford.

Read an Excerpt

1.

 

June 1956

 

It was Isabella who invented the game Dead Nun. Before she moved to St. Cyrus, we had simply played Nun. Decked out in white pillowcases, we knelt between the beds in Flora McDonald's spare room until someone guessed which nun we were aping. It was easy enough; Sister Josephine was a characteristically heavy breather, and Sister Mary Benedict blinked in long, slow strokes, like a dairy cow. But when Isabella joined our sleepovers, she insisted on the morbid finale. And so Flora moved the beds apart until four girls at a time could lie side by side on the floor. That's when the challenge began: the last girl silent won. The last girl silent was always Isabella.

 

My job was to count Mississippis. Partly because pretending to be dead was a terrible jinx, but mostly because I was never actually invited to join. Instead, my place was by the window, where I perched on the sill with what I hoped passed for easygoing cool. Since Flora had once been a Girl Scout, her job was to make sure nobody cheated. Flora claimed she could judge best by standing in front of the door, but I knew it was strictly preventative, since Mrs. McDonald was the kind of mom who covered Kleenex boxes in ruffled quilts for modesty. And even though Flora made me say Hail Marys with her after each sleepover, and even though watching girls lying still and being quiet wasn't much of a Friday night, I appreciated that the game gave me a chance to be close to Isabella. To observe how she wrinkled her nose when Sophie LeBaron giggled and spluttered. To cheer her when she rose victorious from the floor, red-faced and clammy, her pulse beating in the hollow of her throat.

 

 

When Isabella arrived at our high school that year, I never dared to hope we would be friends. The rumors of her malaria had awarded her an irrevocable celebrity even before she enrolled.

 

On her first day, she'd turned up wearing old sneakers, as if school regulations were already of no consequence to her. She possessed heavy, quirky good looks-straight, dark eyebrows, full lips-and we immediately recognized her potential for womanly beauty. Her hair was long and black with a wealthy sheen to it, and though the rest of us had been wearing our hair in pageboys, I decided then to grow mine out. She had a low voice and moved with a careless confidence we studied with reverence. Mrs. Stockley, the dance teacher, was always telling us to sit like ladies, to cross our ankles like ladies, and occasionally she made us practice gliding up and down the gym with hardback copies of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer balanced on our heads. But Isabella gnawed her fingernails and crouched on the cafeteria bench with her knees pulled to her chest. She was perpetually jiggling her foot during classes, and as she passed through the corridors, she whistled, like a boy. Around her right wrist was a band of pale skin she said was a tan mark from the hospital bracelet. I realized later it couldn't have been, because surely nobody wears their hospital bracelet to the beach.

 

Isabella's robust constitution took on a mythic quality. Girls began minimizing their coughs and colds, keeping Isabella in the corner of their vision as they stoically refused to complain about strep throat or sinus infections. There was a sudden mad fashion for charity work. Talent shows and bake sales and raffles to auction sunset cruises and Calder mobiles. And all the proceeds going to the African Trust for Tropical Diseases. Never mind that Isabella wasn't actually in Africa when she got malaria. The rumor alone was enough to sustain our guilty frenzy of conspicuous altruism.

 

And over the course of the year, Isabella's infamy had only grown. Samantha Bleath said she'd seen Isabella diving from the top board at St. Cyrus Country Club. Eleanor Robinson said that while drinking a milkshake at the Creamery, she'd seen Isabella pass by, check to see that no one was watching, and kick Mr. Anderson's Scottish terrier. Flora reported that Isabella's father brought her back a new charm for her bracelet from every country in Europe. I covertly appraised Isabella that year during Mass: the raw fingernails, the charm bracelet tinkling above her not-a-hospital-band tan line. But I understood my role as second-tier acquaintance. I would be allowed close to Isabella at sleepovers, at lacrosse, and during games of Dead Nun. It seemed selfish to wish for more.

 

But then a rumor spread around high school that we were playing Dead Nun, and our game was busted. The nuns got the wrong idea and thought girls were giving each other sacraments. The whole grade was called into an assembly. With rheumy eyes, Sister Marie Carmel warbled on about the sinfulness of mocking the last rites while we muffled yawns and stared at the gilded list of prefects inscribed on the far wall. Flora was sitting straight upright, the tips of her ears turning pink. Sophie LeBaron was picking at a thread on her kilt, and Eleanor Robinson was studying the back of her Bible with unusual concentration. Three rows in front of me, Isabella turned and caught my eye. Slowly, she crossed herself and then mimed a knife through her heart.

 

My pulse shot into my eardrums. I didn't care that everyone would see. I was glad everyone would see. Isabella. Acknowledging in front of the whole school that we were allies. That we shared a secret. From the teachers' bench at the front, Sister Mary Florence flinched and her lips grew tight. She tapped her wristwatch, mouthing, "Corridor," with a menacing arch in her eyebrows.

 

After the closing prayer, Isabella and I waited in the corridor while girls filed by us into classrooms. As they passed, they whispered and nudged each other, looking at us, or conspicuously not looking at us. Isabella chewed her fingernail and began trying to balance on the edge of the banister, as if she weren't in trouble at all. My ears were hot. It was the first time I had ever been sent into the corridor.

 

"Demerit," Sister Mary Florence said, appearing from the auditorium. "Both of you." She took out the little leather book she used to record the names of delinquent girls.

 

I'd expected worse. A lecture. A Bible reading at the least.

 

Sister Mary Florence flicked through the book to find a blank page. "And detention until four p.m. in the library."

 

Isabella's mouth fell open. "But I can't!" She turned to me, as if I had any say in the matter. "I have a dress fitting today." Her expression was so stricken it prompted something inside me, a bubble of inspiration.

 

"It was my fault," I said.

 

Sister Mary Florence snapped her book shut and stared at me. I don't know that she'd ever looked at me properly before. "I beg your pardon?"

 

"It was my fault," I said, more loudly now, pressing my fingernails into my palms. "I dared her. Before school."

 

Sister Mary Florence sighed. "Fine. Report to the library after class. Miss Crowley, you are dismissed."

 

Isabella shot me a wild look that was part horror and part relief.

 

"You can call your mother from the office," Sister Mary Florence said, beginning to turn. "And explain why you'll be late home."

 

I didn't move.

 

Sister Mary Florence frowned over her shoulder. "Come along."

 

I struggled against the prickling in my eyeballs. If I cried now, it would ruin the bravado I had conjured. And Isabella was gazing at me as if I were a fighter pilot about to board a jet. I swallowed to keep my voice steady. "My mom won't be there."

 

Sister Mary Florence raised an eyebrow. "She won't?"

 

I shook my head. That the truth sounded like a lie made me feel even guiltier somehow. I pressed my nails harder into my palms.

 

"Fine. After lunch, please ask-" Then Sister Mary Florence stopped and focused on my face. "Ryan, isn't it?"

 

I nodded.

 

"Bridget Ryan?"

 

I nodded again.

 

She adjusted her glasses on her nose. "Walk with me, Miss Ryan." As we turned the corner I looked back at Isabella, who was staring after us. The door swung again and again on its hinges, revealing stutters of her astonished face.

 

"Tell me," Sister Mary Florence said quietly. "How is your sister?"

 

"Rhona? She's good," I said, before recognizing the opportunity. "I mean, not good, but . . ." I trailed off.

 

Sister Mary Florence stopped in front of the staircase to the teachers' lounge. "On this occasion, I'm willing to rescind your demerit, Miss Ryan."

 

I held my breath.

 

"I understand at the moment you must have"-she coughed-

"pressures at home."

 

I tried to look suitably pressured.

 

"But you must still report for detention. Let it be a lesson to you." She put her hand on the banister post and twisted it under her palm. "And one more word of advice, Miss Ryan," she said. "Guard yourself against bad influences."

 

When she continued to stare at me, I gave her a humble, slow nod. Only when she closed the door to the teachers' lounge did I realize that by "bad influences," she meant Isabella.

 

 

After detention I swung open the library doors with so much enthusiasm that the cafeteria windows bounced in their frames. I blinked into the afternoon, surprised by how improbably bright it was-I had almost convinced myself it would be nighttime. The bitter, sickly scent of dill pickles was leeching from a vent in the wall, and I took a deep breath, reveling in my new appreciation of liberty.

 

"Briddie," Isabella said, leaping off the railing by the tennis courts.

 

"You waited?" My voice came out high and hoarse. "For me?"

 

She shrugged. "I finished early."

 

"Oh."

 

"Anyway"-Isabella snapped her gum, which wasn't allowed on school property, although I didn't say so-"you really didn't have to cover," she said. "They never woulda made me."

 

"Oh."

 

"But it was amazing, Briddie. You're such a hero."

 

"Thanks," I said. My cheeks burned. I tried not to stare at her as we walked together past the tennis court where Miss Frobisher was yelling at Catherine McLoughlin.

 

"What'd she make you do? Lines?"

 

"Flagellation," I said.

 

Isabella's mouth hung open, gum and all. Then she smacked me hard on the arm. "Jeez, Briddie."

 

I cleared my throat. "You don't think they'll count it against me, will they? For the academy applications?" Although I had tried to pass it off as a casual question, the two hours I'd spent copying out 1 Corinthians had given me plenty of time to picture in feverish detail the tribunal where Sister Mary Florence's little book would be placed on a set of weighing scales, and my blackened name would be struck off the list of nominations.

 

Isabella blew a halfhearted bubble that deflated with a squeak. "Course not."

 

"You're sure?" I held my breath, willing to be persuaded.

 

"The academy isn't going to reject you just because of one lousy detention."

 

"OK."

 

"Anyway." Isabella spat out her gum and, with deft precision, poked it into a join in the railing. "Silent nuns would practically be pleased about our game. It's practically a compliment."

 

"Sure," I said.

 

As we stopped at the crosswalk, Minty Walsh shouted, "Izzy!" from the tennis court.

 

Isabella turned and gave her a dainty little wave.

 

I straightened my posture. There I was, casually walking side by side with Isabella. Where other people would see! I checked my outfit. Was there any chalk dust on my kilt? I had Rhona's silver acorn pin on my blazer and I took confidence from that, knowing Flora had coveted it since middle school.

 

We crossed the road and walked along the path that joined Main Street. I felt for the "emergency" dollar bill in the pocket of my kilt. "You want to go to the diner?"

 

"Not hungry," Isabella said.

 

"OK."

 

As we turned the corner onto Main Street, Isabella pointed to the fountain that was meant to commemorate John Everett Jr.'s faithful Labrador. With an exaggerated sigh, she slumped onto the edge of the fountain.

 

I sat next to her and rubbed my Abercrombies together until they squeaked.

 

"I'm so beat," she said, throwing her arms behind her and leaning on them, rolling her head from side to side. It was a strangely adult gesture. I had seen my father stretching his neck in the same way. It made Isabella seem even older, more mature, than she had previously. My stomach scrunched. Isabella was so sophisticated; why would she ever want to be friends with me? Rhona's pin seemed childish and stupid. I wished I could take it off and put it in my pocket without her noticing.

 

"It has been super hot lately," I said, regretting the weak comment even before I finished saying it.

 

"Yeah. And I get beat so easily now, you know." She tugged down on the skin under her eyes.

 

This was new. Isabella was not a whiner. If anything, she wore her endurance like a blue ribbon. I nodded sagely and pulled the compassionate lip twist people always adopted when they talked about Rhona.

 

Isabella looped a lock of hair around her finger. "So listen. It actually wasn't a dress fitting." A penny in the fountain was shining, and it threw a silver fleck onto her face. I watched it wobbling from her cheek to her lashes.

 

"I had a doctor's appointment."

 

I gave her as neutral a nod as I could manage. "OK."

 

Isabella sat forward and rested her chin on her kneecap. "Sorry I didn't say. I mean, I woulda said, but-" She licked her lips. "Sorry."

 

A plume of warmth surged through my spine. "Don't worry."

 

The fountain bubbled. The silver fleck quivered under the line of her eyebrow.

 

"So did the doctor give you the OK for your motorcycle license?"

 

Isabella snorted. She kicked her heels against the fountain. "God, Briddie, it's so boring being sick. I mean, I'm not really sick anymore. But still. I'm so bored waiting to get normal again. You know? Last summer I was practically a shut-in. I swear I'll go crazy if I have to spend any more time indoors."

 

"Could you at least read?" I tilted my head back, closed my eyes, and let the sunlight beat against my eyelids. I hoped that was the right way to act. Taking it for granted instead of making sympathetic gurgles.

 

"Oh no. I didn't even know where I was most of the time. I was like a rag doll."

 

I opened my eyes and glanced at her.

 

She was staring at me with an odd flush in her cheeks, all the fidgeting abandoned. "My mom had to clean me. Even when I was well again. She had to wipe me." She said it with a hardness in her expression, as if challenging me to console her.

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