The magic of books is their ability to transport us from our couch, beach towel or classroom seat to another place and time. Once Upon a Time in Venice, by first-time author Monique Roy, is a book written for the middle school reader that sets out to take young minds to places both physical and emotional. It does so reasonably well, for a first publication, and exceeds expectations for the genre in fleeting moments.
The novel revolves around the relationship between Samuelle, a young boy, and his grandfather Leo. Leo has learned that he suffers from a terminal illness and in his wistful skimming of artifacts from the past, he uncovers treasured mementos of his earliest years growing up in the romantic city of Venice. Sharing them with Samuelle, he infects the boy with a second-hand infatuation for the city, one they will both share when Leo decides to accept an invitation to participate in the annual Regatta, a rowing festival that his own great-grandfather had earned fame for competing in with great success. The two embark on their journey without Samuelle knowing about Leo’s illness, but Leo makes a promise to himself that it is in Venice, after he has passed on his knowledge and love for the city to his grandson, that he will reveal the truth about his fate.
Written for younger minds, the dialogue is broad, if not overly simple, and the level of description – although a little too encyclopedic in many places – will appeal to the factoid-thirsty minds of young boys. Where the book shines is in the passages in which the epic Italian city of canals is vividly painted for readers, such as this description of a ride down the famous Grand Canal.
The vaporettos, the crowded water taxis, were hustling people like the taxis of New York. People stood from the watercraft’s decks mesmerized by the splendor of the centuries of history that surrounded them. Grand and ornate palaces, with pink- and gold-tinted facades, arched windows, and Gothic and Moorish cornices and columns stood tall and proud on the banks.
Although these visually descriptive episodes do a wonderful job of connecting the reader with the place, they are too few and far between. Unfortunately, what is abundant in the text is a need for an editor’s hand and this is one of its greatest flaws. The story and characters provide a sturdy framework for exploring the relationship between Samuelle and his grandfather, as well as tackling issues of life, death, and romantic love, but the clumsiness of the words and structure get in the way through much of the novel. The author’s advantage, however, is that with her finger already on the pulse of a good thread, this tale – if the material is sharpened – also would make a wonderful illustrated book, if the writer pairs with a proficient children’s book artist.
I would recommend this book for young readers, most of whom will find a way to identify with Samuelle, but not those who have already moved on to lengthier books than Once Upon a Time in Venice’s quick-reading 51 pages. The vocabulary is challenging enough for readers graduating from grade-school fiction, but its brevity offers the sure satisfaction of making it to the last page while retaining the bulk of the story.