By Beth Kephart
Chronicle. 272 pp. $17.99
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Nadia Cara is a deft thief with refined, if haphazard, taste.
The central character in Philly-area author Beth Kephart's new novel, One Thing Lost, steals Italian leather twists, silk scarves, and flowers from small shops and markets in Florence.
But Nadia, the teen daughter of a history professor on sabbatical, finds little joy in her pursuits, for she is gradually losing her mind. She struggles to make coherent sentences when remembering her beloved Philly roots and questions the existence of an Italian boy she follows through the city.
According to her neurologist, Nadia can neither be blamed for her actions nor articulate her frustration. It's as if her consciousness is inundated with muck, like the streets of Florence during the flood of 1966 - the subject of Nadia's father's research. Nadia needs the help of her family, her doctor, and her best friend, Maggie, to clean the wreckage.
Kephart writes with authority and affection about Florence, its romance, history, and triumph - qualities reflected in the scenes set in Philadelphia, Florence's sister city, where Maggie studies. The parallels drawn between two cities and two girls highlight that unwavering bond characteristic of young adulthood.
Kephart overworks other metaphors, notably bird and nest imagery. The opening lines - "There are 400 billion birds in this world. Every one of them came from an egg" - beautifully introduce the theme of a singular, liberated life breaking free. If only Kephart used more restraint. Her intention is to illustrate that while Nadia's mind takes flight, she compensates by weaving intricate and sturdy structures. But can these nests hold their nestlings?
To lighten her young-adult book, Kephart introduces a sweet if unsatisfying romance. Benedetto, Nadia's mysterious love whom only she can see at times, drifts through the story like the ghost he is, revealing himself only at the brink of her recovery.
Kephart has afflicted Nadia with a rare condition. She makes a risky choice writing most of the book from Nadia's perspective. The style is daring and well-intentioned, meant to expose young readers to the reality of this condition. But the choppy and incoherent monologues do not work.
Nadia's cognition is not the only aspect of the book full of holes. Most of the story, before a change in narrator, reads like a tedious screenplay. Trying to capture the staccato rhythms of Nadia's thinking, Kephart uses lists. Interesting lists, to be sure. But. After. The. Fortieth. Enough. Already. The dialogue, too, wears on the reader. A long bout of hiccups, with rarely a smooth breath.
Kephart sketches in potentially fascinating minor characters, but fails to develop their roles.
Three-quarters of the way through, the novel improves when Maggie takes over the narrative. Her voice is relatable and provides welcome clarity, unlike the final pages of Benedetto's narration. He comes in too abruptly and briefly to carry the book to the hopeful, romantic close intended.
There is a poignancy to the novel, and Kephart deserves credit for her effort to promote greater sensitivity for those who are struggling.