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Book Review: A Portrait of Pia 

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A Portrait of Pia
Marisabina Russo
Harcourt Inc., June 2007, $17

When first we meet Pia, she’s carrying a lot on her shoulders. Mom is loving, but something of a serial dater; big brother Mario’s intended college career has been seriously disrupted by schizophrenia. Her best friend is starting to seem alarmingly shallow, and the boy she likes is dating the meanest girl in school.

But there is a mystery in Pia’s life. She has never known her father; beyond that, she’s never known just why she didn’t know him. Amid the emotional chaos that comes with being bright, sensitive, and 13, she turns to the mystery factor in hopes it will change everything: In the basement of her New York apartment, she digs up her father’s address and writes him a letter.

This leads to an invitation to visit Italy, which sends her mom into a dither. There are indeed mysteries here, and brave-hearted Pia will keep pushing until she puts the clues together. Meanwhile, life is unfolding in every direction at once: Mom’s new boyfriend may be the real thing, for a change. And despite Pia’s fear and embarrassment over his illness, Mario’s poetry reading turns out to be a magical occasion at which she makes a new friend who isn’t shallow at all.

Putnam County author Russo has a fine sense of the pace of everyday life among unconventional people. We can feel the stories and emotions of the others—Mom and her new love, Greg; Mario; even Pia’s best friend—as they weave around Pia’s universe in ways she barely takes in, so enmeshed is she in her dream of the unknown father.

In Italy, while being carted to every tourist attraction that her father—who turns out to be a mere mortal—can think of, Pia’s world enlarges almost against her will as she seeks to discern what happened between the two people who gave her life. The cute boy back home doesn’t look quite so hot in comparison to the young Italians she glimpses. She’s eating strange foods, hearing a new language, having her artistic sensibilities stretched by masters—all while striving to convince the adults that they can, for heaven’s sake, just talk to her and tell her the story of her own beginning. In all of it, she attains not perfection, but progress.

When her father offers her a completely different life, the one she was feeling so discontented with turns out to be very dear, indeed. Back in New York, it seems nothing has changed, and yet everything has. None of the problems have disappeared, but Pia’s strengthening spirit sheds a light in which they become less overwhelming.

Pia’s story is at once very particular and eminently accessible to young teens. The characters and their dilemmas are drawn with loving detail and the book’s lack of simple resolutions rings of real life. There’s no talking down to the reader: Life in Pia’s world is not for sissies. Nobody, it turns out, can offer her what she originally hoped to find when she found Dad. But there are moments, great and small, that begin to be enough in themselves. She cuts off her trademark long hair. She draws a self-portrait. The cute boy? Not worth the bother. The shallow friend? She’ll grow up. Or she won’t. Award-winning author/illustrator Russo has crafted a wonderful coming-of-age tale.

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