Wow, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman is an experience. It was heartbreaking at times, humorous at other moments but I felt it was a complete story with a satisfying conclusion. The below review will contain some spoilers so if you haven’t read the novel yet, head over to my preview that will give you a synopsis and background information.
The Italian Teacher features real problems that pretty much anyone can relate to: children (both as adolescents and adults) seeking paternal approval as well as striving to make their own mark on the world. This story so happens to revolve around a world-famous painter and his son’s struggle for approval and relevance and while some stories about famous people (real and fictional) can feel over the top and almost too dramatic, this one didn’t. In fact, Rachman created fictional characters that truly felt real to human nature: the mess ups, the jealousy, the pettiness but also acts of kindness.
For most of the novel, the protagonist Pinch is the lovable loser you see sometimes in fiction, TV shows and movies. The type of character who has dreams and aspirations but through a combination of self-sabotage and outside influences, things always go wrong for them. I recently re-watched the 2004 film Sideways and I see similarities between Pinch and Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti). They convince themselves they’re not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough and that’s why life doesn’t go the way they want it to.
In Pinch’s case, all he wants is to create his own legacy beyond the shadow of his larger-than-life father (Bear) and time after time, he fails.
Until he doesn’t.
I love the plot twist that not only is Pinch a talented painter but (thanks to his rebellion against his father), his work will live on in museums and in people’s homes. Even though the world believes the paintings are Bear’s work, Pinch was able to finally earn the respect he really was seeking all along: his own.
Marsden turned out to become a more interesting and significant character than I expected. But as Pinch said (in jest) he might have been the love of his life, well, he’s not far off. Marsden was the first person to friend Pinch and care about him outside of his mother. Even though they had their ups and downs, he clearly cared for Pinch (unlike most of Pinch’s romantic relationsips). His role on Bear’s final day was very unexpected and I wondered if it would become more of a focus later on but it just seems to be one of those unsaid loose ends.
In the end, it was all about Bear. He impacted so many lives – for his fans, his work was thoughtful, inspiring and impactful. But for his family, much more complicated. He was charismatic, manipulative, narcissistic but exhibited those rare moments of warmth that could wash away all those bad qualities, for the moment at least. You believe with Pinch that this time it will be better with Bear, he’ll finally be the father he should be, show his support for his son. And what really served the story well was not defining any of the characters as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad,’ but shades of both.
What is success, how do you define a legacy, what is considered true artistic value?
The Italian Teacher is one of those stories that is going to stick with me for a long time.
Click here for book club questions for The Italian Teacher.