Lily Prior’s third novel “Ardor”, is a story of love – misdirected love, unrequited love and love between people who, for one reason or another, never find a way to bring their mutual affection out into the open. What makes this story unusual is that at the center of this story is the love that a donkey has for a human! Yes, that’s right. And one of the unique things about this book is that the story is told from the perspective of that donkey.
While the idea of the narrator of a story being a donkey may seem innovative and interesting, it is important to remember that readers need to identify with the story. If the story is being told by the type of character that the readers cannot relate to, then the writer loses credibility and their readers will feel disconnected from the story. Fortunately, Prior was unable to keep this pretense up throughout the book and her desire to write in third-person, omnipresent via the donkey, lost the “donkey” feel to it during most of the action. While this may seem inconsistent, this actually works in her favor, since the reader can forget the donkey’s part in the story for large chunks of the reading. So this distinctive approach, which could have ruined the book, actually becomes only a slight and occasional disturbance.
As in her previous books, here too Prior uses “magical reality” by taking seemingly ordinary people and giving them or their surroundings extraordinary qualities. In “La Cucina” it was way the food affected the characters; in “Nectar” it was the affect the scent of that unusual woman had on the characters. Here, the magic seems to seep into far more than just the main character. In fact, it is difficult to actually pinpoint one person (or animal, as the case may be) as being totally central to this story. If pressed, one could say that the main characters were the donkey, and the object of the donkey’s affection. However the story begins with the journey of a woman who comes into the village to find her twin sister, the men who fall in love with her, and their rivalry. Their parts are no less important to this book, and at times that the focus is mainly on them. There is also the magical effect of this woman’s presence in the village, and how this influences the action of the story, both on the other people in the village and on the physical changes in the village itself.
Sounds a bit confusing, doesn’t it, but imagine if you will, the way a hurricane or earthquake affects a town. People re-examine their lives, need to adjust and change, need to look at their pasts and towards their futures, and everyone is effected in one way or another, even if in the end, they decide to ignore what’s going on around them and return to their old ways of living. This is basically the second theme of this book – how the unexpected effects different types of people. In this case, it is the arrival of Fernanda Ponderosa to the small Italian village where her twin sister, Silvana lives.
So we have star-crossed lovers, passion and change. And Prior’s Italian setting for all this is as much filled with opulence as it is enchantments. Prior’s love for Italy is obvious, and her descriptions of the surroundings verges on the delectable – much like the way she described foods in “La Cucina”. In “Ardor”, she concentrates more on the settings than in either of her first two books, both of which have a more specific focus than just the surroundings. Here the surroundings take a more major role, and in this Prior doesn’t disappoint in the least. Again, as in her previous novels, when Prior describes some spot or view, one can easily visualize her words, and you’ll find yourself almost transported to these vistas through her cunning use of language. Moreover, the land and climate of this unnamed village play no small role in this story. In fact, the weather, agriculture and flora of the area seem to react to the action and both reflect and contradict the goings on within them, as if the country itself has become yet another character here. It’s as if Prior is trying to give you a total 3-D effect to the printed word, and on many levels, this works well for her.
While the scenery in “Ardor” comes further to the forefront than in her previous novels, Prior doesn’t neglect her primary talent – describing her characters in all their quirky and magical splendor. Here too, Prior has a large cast of characters, and in addition to the people, in “Ardor” she also has no small amount of animals included in the mix. Certainly, if the narrator is a donkey, this should come as no surprise. However, while there is a menagerie here, it is only the donkey that actually has a “speaking” part, and the rest of the zoo is allowed to be just observed – thank goodness! Still, even with all these crowds, in this novel it is actually easier to keep track all the characters than in her previous two efforts. Perhaps one just becomes used to Prior’s style, or more likely the reader learns how to rides it out – much like a storm or perhaps a roller coaster ride!
The latter would be a good choice since this is definitely a fun read, as well as a quick one. And at only 216 pages of text, there’s hardly a page where something fantastical doesn’t happen. If it isn’t some freak of nature wrecking havoc on one thing or another, then it’s some person doing something unexpected in an odd expression of their passion towards someone (or something) else. Yes, our Lily has once again given us a work that is jam-packed with action, even though her stories are mostly character driven – which is a compliment.
Finally, what book entitled “Ardor” could be devoid of love, passion and sex! Yes, there’s lots of that, and a good deal of sensuality. However, it stops well short of being soft porn, so for the less graphically inclined, who prefer more suggestion than details in their romance won’t be offended or let down.
The verdict here is that despite the slight lapse Lily Prior showed in using a literary tool of having the narrator of the story being non-human, she still shows a special story telling talent that shouldn’t be overlooked. Prior can set the stage with a quick phrase or two and put us visually where she wants us. She has a way of suggesting the emotions of her characters without “bodice ripping” scenes. She also has a knack for making the usual into something special by giving her characters a generous touch of the mystical and supernatural. And she does all this while telling a complex story in a compact and interesting way. This is certainly another worthy effort from the lovely Lily, but deserves only four stars out of five, because of the donkey narrator part being a bit lame.
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