IT'S HARD NOT to think of Mary Kay LeTourneau in relation to Cardiofitness, the first novel by Italian author Alessandra Montrucchio. While there are countless examples of forbidden love, romance is perhaps the last thing we associate with a love so bizarre that it can only be translated as a made-for-television movie. It's no small accomplishment that Montrucchio avoids such sensationalism while telling a similar story. CARDIOFITNESS
by Alessandra Montrucchio
(Toby Press, $29.99) Like the former schoolteacher, 27-year-old Stefania, a linguist and aspiring writer in Turin, initiates an affair with an underage boy—age 15, to be exact. Their romance is set in the quintessential urban meet market—a health club. Hellos by the Stairmaster turn into walks, walks turn into movie dates, and soon the lad, who has a "long and delicate neck, and who gives off the scent of sandalwood," becomes Stefania's muse for poems, stories—and you guessed it—a novel. Montrucchio, who writes a column titled "Bad Girls" for an Italian newspaper, experiments quite a bit within the novel format. Prose is sometimes interrupted by poetry or screenplay-style camera directions. These strays are often clunky, and the author is at her best when delivering sensuous prose: "[Stefania] pours a bit of water into the palm of her hand and runs it over his neck—he bends his head forward and lifts up his hair in a gesture of submission. But afterwards he takes the bottle, pours the water into his hand and runs it round her neck, and she's the one to bend her head forwards and lift up her hair. They go on like this, with almost religious slowness, their face, neck, shoulders and knees brushing against each other, until the last drop of water has gone." Montrucchio isn't as blithely funny as Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones's Diary) or former New York Press sex columnist Amy Sohn, who penned last year's Run Catch Kiss. She skewers the characters surrounding Stefania, giving them unflattering nicknames like "Beast" for the male aerobics instructor, "Broomstick" for the skinny receptionist, and "The Barnacle" for the boy's watchful father. But for the most part, Montrucchio is serious in trying to convince us that the attraction between Stefania and the similarly named Stefano is "pure," infusing their relationship with an almost childlike innocence. They listen to '80s music, dunk biscuits into vodka, and fantasize about eating a whole loaf of bread filled with Nutella. When they have sex for the first time, they discuss the merits of Disney animation. Montrucchio offsets this odd relationship with the difficulties of being a twentysomething. Stefania and her best girlfriends, dubbed "Charlie's Angels," find their university degrees useless in the real world, good boyfriends elusive, and the concept of marriage and children frightening. Hence Stefania's relationship with Stefano can be rationalized as being suitable insofar as it's more joyful than other relationships. In reference to her ex, a man her own age she was with for four years, Stefania says, "It's the first few months that last the longest. Then you get used to the other person, and time flies by without you even noticing. And then you suddenly realize that you've spent years with the wrong guy." While it's doubtful that Stefano will be the right guy, at least we know that from the start.