Reviewed by Valerie on Goodreads and for Love Bytes Reviews
When We Were Sea and Stars is a stunning and captivating love story. It played like a foreign language film in my head, with its dramatic Mediterranean scenery, the colorful residents of a small town in Southern Italy, and an inside look at daily life through the eyes of Italian author, Elen Chase. But it’s the love story that is so achingly beautiful it brought me to tears. James and Roberto are so lovely together it imprinted my heart.
Roberto didn’t say a word, but our fingers intertwined. He held my hand tightly and I almost cried as I realized that was the most intimate gesture I had ever shared with another person in my whole life.
Nineteen year old American, James, has been deeply scarred emotionally by something in his past that isn’t revealed until much later in the book. His self-esteem has been shattered, as have relationships with his family, friends, and classmates. He only feels worthy and loved when being used for sex, but clearly he doesn’t know what love really is. James’ family has rented a home for a month long vacation/escape from real life next door to Roberto’s childhood home. Rob lives many hours away in Milan but is visiting his family for his summer break and to attend a cousin’s wedding.
Rob has been in an unsatisfying, “safe” relationship for two years with boyfriend Luca. In fact, his relationships have always been mediocre and devoid of love. Fate steers Rob’s life in a different direction when Luca declines Rob’s invitation to join him on his trip.
James quickly develops a crush on Rob, the tall, dark, and handsome, twenty-something man next door, and Rob soon becomes enamored with the cute blue eyed, blond James. The nature of their relationship is confusing to them, sometimes resembling a friendship, other times feeling like more. They’re good for each other: James stops hating himself when he’s with Rob, and James makes Rob feel alive. And so they move along in fits and starts, with both feeling unworthy of the other – James because of his past and Rob because he thinks he doesn’t know how to love properly.
Their feelings grow as they spend lazy days in the sun or bicycling along narrow roads, and nights in bars or gathered around a bonfire on the beach, listening to the dulcet strumming of a guitar. Both men find peace in the simple pleasures and rituals of everyday life in this small town.
I was drawn to When We Were Sea and Stars in part because of its setting, particularly since it was written by a native author. I appreciate being immersed in and learning about foreign cultures, in this case a fictitious town south of Rome on the Mediterranean Sea. Chase has created a rich landscape with verdant mountains abutting the deep, blue water. Beaches are surrounded by cliffs and wooden boats rock in the gentle waves. When darkness grows, lights twinkle from towns nestled into the sides of mountains, and the darkened sky is a sea of stars. The wedding itself was a lavish affair steeped in traditions that were fascinating to read about.
The rich array of characters – most of them Rob’s relatives – are integral to the story and contribute in large part to the depth of the narrative. Both James and Rob’s families have significant roles. The importance of family is a recurring theme. The standouts among the cast are Rob’s best friend and cousin Francesco, Rob’s brother Marco, and Jenn, another cousin who becomes James’ best friend. All three are realistic characters who provide advice and support in keeping with their age and experience. A special mention goes to Rob’s grandfather, or nonno, for his warm and welcoming nature and kindness toward James.
I was on edge for much of the book, not able to anticipate how this could end happily. My heart was on a rollercoaster ride, plunging for the final drop before it pulled out of the descent and settled happily and with great relief. Chase does indeed pull out an HEA in the last few pages. For once, I’m glad the epilogue wasn’t set a year or more into the future, but rather just a few months after their summer romance. The story retains its magic and immediacy this way, and provides a more powerful ending.
I was profoundly moved and deeply satisfied by Chase’s writing. It was a pleasure to witness James and Rob’s love flourish. The secondary characters and the setting are essential here, but it’s James and Rob that make this book shine so brightly.
Reviewed for Love Bytes Reviews