Workaholic, career-obsessed Francesca is fiercely independent and successful in all areas of her life except one: family. She struggles to make time for her relationship with her teenage daughter, Allegra, and the two have become practically strangers to each other. When Allegra hangs out with a new crowd and is arrested for drug possession, Francesca gives in to her mother's wish that they take one epic summer vacation to trace their family roots in Italy. She just never expected to face a choice that might change the course of her life. . .
Allegra wants to make her grandmother happy, but she hates the idea of forced time with her mother and vows to fight every step of the ridiculous tour, until a young man on the verge of priesthood begins to show her the power of acceptance, healing, and the heartbreaking complications of love.
Sophia knows her girls are in trouble. A summer filled with the possibility for change is what they all desperately need. Among the ruins of ancient Rome, the small churches of Assisi, and the rolling hills of Tuscany, Sophia hopes to show her girls that the bonds of family are everything, and to remind them that they can always lean on one another, before it's too late.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
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"No, I said the deadline is Wednesday. That gives you two days to give me a decent hook or I'm pulling you off the account."
I ignored the glint of resentment in the young man's green eyes, wondering if he thought his charm and good looks trumped talent. In many places, they did. But not in my company.
I gave him credit for smothering the emotion immediately and forcing a smile. "Got it. I'll get it done."
I nodded. "I know you will."
He left my office with his shoulders squared, and I wondered what would eventually triumph-pride or the drive for success. He was young and had promise, so I hoped the latter for him. Pride was good in some cases, but working on a team to retain high-powered advertising accounts required the ability to do what it took, whether it was working with someone you didn't care for or swallowing the innate instinct to push back at the boss you hated.
Of course, he didn't hate me. At least not yet. It was hard to take orders from a woman who was blind to looks, charisma, or flattery. I'd learned that lesson early-and ran my F&F Advertising with a ruthless efficiency and cold-mannered sharpness that made me one of the best in the business. I'd even managed to snag a spot on the Top Ten Women to Watch in Business list from Fortune magazine.
Too bad I had no time to enjoy it.
I glanced at my watch, my mind furiously clicking over the day's crammed schedule. I'd have to work late again, but it'd be worth it once I nailed this new account. I headed to the conference room for a meeting with my team, my sensible low-heeled shoes clicking on the hardwood floor. Layla and Kate were already perched at the polished table, laptops fired up and endless papers strewn around.
"Morning, boss," Kate said, motioning toward the chair next to her. "Figured we'd be eating lunch in again, so I had Jessica get your usual."
"Thanks." I took a sip of my Voss water as I sat beside them. I lived on water and grilled chicken salads, which was the easiest fuel to shove into my body on limited time. "Where's Adam?"
"Running late," Layla said, shooting me a smile. "But I don't think we need him for the brainstorming session. Better to get his feedback on the social media after we have a few solid concepts."
"True. He didn't look too thrilled with our new product."
Kate quirked a brow. "He's been begging to sell something sexier than kids' lemonade."
Layla snorted. "I told him anyone can sell sex-it's not even a challenge. If he makes this work, he's a genius."
I laughed. "You always did know how to motivate him, Layla."
My valued art director preened. "Plenty of practice in the ranks of hell. At least it was good for something."
Layla had graduated at the top of her class and planned to take Manhattan by storm. Unfortunately, like me, she ended up with a slew of crap jobs, and being a black woman in the industry meant encountering prejudices to overcome. We'd worked together for a few years before I ventured out to create my own company, and I knew she'd be the perfect art director for F&F Advertising.
I trusted her with both my business and my personal shit. It was the best decision I ever made.
Kate was my advertising manager and my other right hand. She wore tailored designer suits, and her blond hair was pulled back tight in a chignon, emphasizing her classic bone structure. I had to admit, when I first met Kate, I thought she was too beautiful and quiet to be successful in such a cutthroat business, but she soon proved me wrong, and now I never discriminate based on looks. I made sure I hired a diverse, multicultural team, treated them like royalty, and offered enough incentives for promotion. It proved a good move, since I had low turnover and a core of hard-won talent.
Lately, I'd been thinking of offering them both a full partnership. My little boutique company was finally on the verge of exploding, and I needed people I trusted by my side. I had been intent on not bringing in partners, but now I saw that if I wanted to really grow, it was time I took the leap. Plus, I considered these women friends. They'd proven their loyalty, and we worked well together.
But that tiny sliver of doubt still crept through me. I'd gotten here by relying on my own drive, talent, and gut instincts to give clients what they need, twenty-four seven. I was the final say on everything for my company. Giving up that type of control made my skin prickle, like I was about to break out into hives. I'd heard horror stories of being pushed out by once-trusted partners and overruled on important decisions by lack of majority. What if Kate and Layla decided to team up and I found myself the odd woman out? Power sometimes had a funny effect on relationships. Did I really want to take such a chance? Even with these women I trusted and called friends?
I needed more time to think it through. Until then, I'd just push forward.
I shook my head and refocused. "Let's get to work. We only have two weeks until the presentation. I've been looking over all the reports from the research department and there are a few things we need to zone in on."
Layla jumped in. "Lexi's Lemonade is organic. That's the main buzzword."
"Exactly. Statistics show kids drive popular drink sales by pushing their parents to buy. We need to find a way to bridge the gap and get the children to beg mom to buy it."
"And the moms need to feel good about giving in," Kate added.
I brought up a picture of the label on my screen and tapped it with my fingernail. "Packaging is huge. The recycled box is earth-friendly and colorful. It needs to compete on the shelves with Capri Sun, Honest Kids, and the endless others. We need to find a unique inroad."
"At least it tastes good," Layla said. She pursed her red-painted lips. "Can you believe Kool-Aid still sells a shitload? Man, I loved that stuff growing up. And what a mascot. Genius."
"Hmm, but I don't think we want a mascot for this product," I said. "We need to gain children's attention with the ad, then slam it home that there's low sugar and no preservatives. The double hook."
"Shock value?" Layla threw out.
I nodded. "Possible, but not too much. I think funny."
Kate cocked her head. "Kids nowadays are immune to shock value with YouTube and video games. I agree, funny may be the way to go."
Layla groaned and opened up her email. "I'll get Sarah started on kids' comedy and what generates the most sales."
"Good, let's start throwing everything in the pot for possible scenarios," I said. The rush of adrenaline warmed my blood as the challenge of a new creative account settled in. This was what I lived for, the elusive hunt for the perfect hook to please a client and sell the product. It never got old.
We started brainstorming and my phone vibrated. Glancing quickly at the screen, I noticed my mother had called twice without leaving a voice mail. I held back a groan. Typical. If I didn't pick up, she just kept calling and refused to leave a message. Soon, a text came through.
Frannie, please call me. I have an important question.
Impatience flickered. She was always calling me with endless questions, from how to work the television remote to what movie to rent at Redbox to whether I'd seen the latest and greatest health scare in the news. Once, she'd called half a dozen times to tell me she had a thirty percent coupon at Kohl's and didn't want it to expire.
She'd never really respected my work or how far I'd come, still treating me like I had a disposable job that allowed me to leave when I wanted, relax on weekends, or delegate my work when I wished. Her constant refrains echoed through my mind.
I don't understand. Aren't you the boss? Why can't you take some time off?
I grabbed my phone and typed out a text. Busy now. Call you later.
I got back to work and shortly thereafter Adam came in. His curly brown hair was a bit mussed, and sweat gleamed on his forehead. "We have a problem," he announced, crashing down into the chair.
"You decided you're too fancy to work on branding Lexi's Lemonade," Layla teased, used to Adam's dramatics. The man was a bit over-the-top but a genius when it came to creating click-worthy social media campaigns.
"No. The IG ad for Dallas Jeans is tanking." He slid his iPad down the table with it opened to the screen. "Consumers hate it. We need a rebrand."
My heart rate rammed into a full gallop. I had no time for any failures that weren't scheduled. "It's still brand-new," I said, glancing down at the ad. "Maybe we need some organic growth first."
Adam shook his head. "Not with this. It's only going to get worse. I have a few suggestions on what to tweak, Frannie. I know you're busy so I can work with Layla and get it handled."
"No problem," Layla said. "I can make the time."
I hesitated. I was already overworked and overscheduled. I should just let Adam and Layla take care of it, but the Dallas Jeans ad was something I'd helped create. If it bombed, I needed to be involved in fixing it. "No, I can work with you."
Kate blinked. "What about Lexi's Lemonade? We don't want to get behind. It may be better to let them handle it, Frannie."
I squared my shoulders. "I know the client best, including Perry's preferences. I'll stay late a few nights and knock it out."
Kate and Layla shared a glance but held their tongues. They'd been pushing for more control, advising me to hire more people and to work lead on fewer clients. I knew they were trying to help and that they craved more responsibility, but I still had an uneasy feeling that if I stepped back too much, they'd eventually decide they didn't need me.
I tamped down on the tiny flicker of fear coursing through my bloodstream. That annoying, buzzing voice whispering the million ways I could fail. My entire reputation was based on running F&F Advertising and thriving at every level. I'd finally managed to secure some national-brand clients and needed to show they'd made the right decision in placing their dollars with a smaller firm.
Why did it feel like the entire world was waiting for me to fail? Successful women were still looked upon as dangerous, and one big mistake was gleefully gossiped about, with news of it spreading like wildfire.
I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. "Now, let's get to work," I said firmly.
They didn't protest.
Hours later, I collapsed in my office and buzzed Jessica. "Any messages?" I asked.
She rattled off a few I could put off until tomorrow. "Your mother called twice. Said you'd promised to call her back."
I groaned, rubbing my temples. "I forgot, thanks. Go on home. Thanks for staying."
"No problem. Have a good night, Frannie."
My stomach growled. I reached inside my desk drawer and nibbled on a Kind bar. Better get it over with. I dialed my mom's number.
"Hi, Mom. Everything okay?"
"You never called me back." Her voice held a slight sting designed to instill guilt. It worked. "You weren't at Allegra's track meet."
My daughter's schedule was as jam-packed as mine, with tennis matches and races across the county. I'd missed the last few and swore I'd be there for the invitational. Her time was stellar and she had a good chance at getting a scholarship for both her running and her grades. This meet had been key. "I'm sorry," I said with a sigh. "We had a crisis here at work, and I literally just got to my office. Why didn't she call or text me?"
"Because she wanted you to remember on your own."
The whiplash of guilt stung deeper. Another test I'd failed. How could I be a rock star at my job and such a loser at home? "What was her time?"
"I forgot but I wrote it down for you. She beat her record in the eight hundred and got a medal for first in the fifteen hundred."
Pride flashed through me. "That's amazing. Is she there with you?"
"No, she went home on her own. But I wanted to invite you both to dinner this week. Allegra wants to try out a new dish and we've had no family time together. How about Wednesday?"
I closed my eyes, resenting the requests she threw at me. She had nothing on her schedule and assumed I should jump at any invitation. "I can't, Mom. I've got a hell of a week coming up with this new campaign, and I need to work late."
An impatient sigh huffed over the line. My nerves prickled with annoyance. "Again? This is a difficult year for Allegra, and she needs you home, at least for dinner. Plus, I can't freeze the grass-fed beef since it's been in the refrigerator and I got it specifically for you. It's expensive."
"Then make it for yourself, Mom. It has less hormones so it's better for your health."
Mom snorted. "I'm too old to care what I eat anymore. Why can't you come home and eat like a normal person, then go back to the office? At least we'll have some time with you."
I ground my teeth, remembered my last dentist appointment, and tried to relax my jaw. My mother had spent her entire life catering to Dad and me, creating domestic chores like a lifeline. And though she always said aloud that she was proud of my success, deep down I wondered. Instead of trying to support me through my struggles as a single mother, she turned to her skills as a master guilt-trip artist and exposed all my own crippling doubts. Did she resent my choice to become a career woman? To raise Allegra without a father figure? Or did she wonder what type of life she would've had if she'd embraced more than the four walls of her home?
I'd never know. We rarely got into deep conversations. It was easier to stick to mundane topics and trick ourselves into believing we had a connection-the sacred mother-daughter bond that movies love to exploit in sickening, shallow sweetness. I preferred the truth, even though it sometimes tasted bitter.
Reading Group Guide
Our Italian Summer by Jennifer Probst
Questions for Discussion
1. When we first meet Francesca, we discover she seems to prioritize work over family. Did you feel sympathetic or critical toward her character and her responsibilities? Did she inspire any empathy for her situation, or did you believe she could have made better choices?
2. The three main characters—Francesca, Allegra, and Sophia—all have individual struggles within the family. Were you able to relate to one of them better than the others? Why?
3. Do you think it was wrong for Sophia to decide to keep her health problems to herself and not share them with her daughter?
4. Italy plays an important role in Our Italian Summer. As the characters travel, they begin to find out more about themselves. Did you have a favorite town/setting you loved the most? Why? What was it about the scene that resonated with you?
5. The relationship between Enzo and Francesca grows gradually throughout the book. What kind of future do you envision for them?
6. Allegra struggles with her resentment of Francesca’s workaholic tendencies and with not feeling seen by her mother. Many of us may experience guilt over our work and careers, and trying to find balance between work and homelife. Discuss the mother-daughter roles represented and the character with whom you identified most closely and why.
7. Allegra and Sophia share a deep bond, which Francesca seems jealous of. Is there someone you experienced a tight bond with other than your parents? What did you get out of the experience? Looking back, do you see why you bonded with that particular person?
8. Francesca has always wanted to be the exact opposite of her mother and raise her daughter differently. Yet her daughter ends up feeling more connected to Sophia, embracing her view of life rather than her mother’s. What do you think of this dynamic? Do you believe that if Francesca hadn’t pushed her so hard, Allegra would have embraced more of her mother’s viewpoints?
9. The overall theme of Our Italian Summer is that our relationships to our family develop and change us. Discuss each character’s growth arc and how they changed over the course of the book.
10. Allegra and Ian’s relationship begins with friendship but morphs into love. Do you think her feelings for Ian change Allegra for the better? How so?
11. Ian wants to become a priest. Do you believe he should have pursued a different path after falling in love with Allegra? What do you think happens to Ian after the close of the book? Do you think Ian and Allegra will always have a relationship?
12. Do you think Allegra and Ian should have had sex if he was intent on pursuing the priesthood? Discuss.
13. The Ferrari women meet many characters during their tour of Italy. Who do you think made the biggest impact on Allegra? Sophia? Francesca?
14. The book includes several descriptive scenes of landscapes and food. What was your favorite? What feelings did it invoke?
15. Have you ever visited Italy? What was your experience there? If you have never been, do you dream of traveling to a specific part of Italy?