ANNA MONARDO'S first novel, ``The Courtyard of Dreams,'' reads like a coming-of-age tale. Through the eyes of a perceptive teenage girl, we follow her struggle to break free from an overbearing father and make sense of a first love. Monardo, however, departs from the usual adolescent-angst novel by fueling hers with another complex theme: ethnic identity and assimilation.
The heroine is Giulia (pronounced ``Julia'') Di Cuore, a smart and stubborn 18-year-old Italian-American who has been raised by her father, an Italian psychiatrist who quotes Dante and embraces Old World ideas. (Her American mother died when she was 10 years old.) Both Giulia and her father are hard-headed masters of defensiveness - and intensely in need of each other's love. Giulia's feelings for him are at war: ``more than anything ... my father fascinated and terrified me.''
This powerful link sweeps her into his Italian character, which sparks questions about her own cultural identity and sense of place. Foremost, Giulia feels threatened by her father's exotic streaks; his untouchable past displaces her and sets off a profound fear of abandonment: ``I was afraid my father would wake up one morning and realize I was foreign to him. Or maybe he would decide ... that he had given up too much and it was time to go back to Italy.''
She tries holding onto him by drinking up his stories about the past. More often, she finds herself lost and alone in the ocean between his life and hers.
As the novel opens, Monardo provides a window of light for her troubled heroine: Giulia is sent off to the Calabrian seashore to spend the summer with her father's two brothers and their families, whom she has never met.
Giulia steps into Italy and at once sheds her cold veneer. Like most travelers, she finds herself awakened by the differences that exist in a foreign land; in this case, Italy's color - the county's evocative landscape and the affectionate nature of its people. But unlike a tourist's detachment, Giulia's familial ties to the country make her assimilation process deeper and more natural, as she is offered both a specific destination and a sense of home.
Much of the story follows Giulia's journey toward self-discovery, as she grabs at her life and this chance to stand alone.
The largest portion of the novel concerns her tumble into a confounding first love. Unfortunately, wading through Giulia's prattle of see-saw emotion grows all too predictable and, with little insight, all too tiring. Especially during such passages, this novel seems better suited for a younger audience.
Monardo is at her best when she observes from afar, deftly capturing snatches of places and people: the dusty street life of Giulia's relatives' neighborhood in the city; day-to-day life inside their summer beach house; her grandmother's peasant village set in peasant time.
But the writer spends far too long preciously shading the Italian culture and not enough time developing her characters. Missing are the subtleties of motive and feeling. Dialogue tends to be forced and clunky as well; one longs in these pages for dashes of liveliness and eloquence.
Such shortcomings aside, one message in this novel makes it a worthwhile read, especially for young women: In the journey through adolescence - a stage in which girls have been observed to give up their voice and sense of self - Giulia pushes against the conventional grain with determination, validating a young woman's battle to find her own voice and special place in the world.