But just when her life seems to have reached perfection, Olivia threatens it all by developing an obsession with the man her mother once loved, as well as the dream of a different life, with a very different father.
The story begins with a brief recollection from the perspective of Jackson Holland, a self-made millionaire who has adopted a four-year-old girl, Olivia Sophia, into his Manhattan home with his wife, Emi. This interesting technique of opening the novel from the perspective of a secondary character helps set up the rest of the story by showing the sincerity and depth with which Jacks loves Olivia. This proves to be especially vital, since the plot truly begins when Olivia, or “Livvy,” becomes an increasingly rebellious sixteen-year-old seeking freedom from her father’s protective “rules and limits.” This defiant nature begins to stir within Livvy when she starts to unravel a mystery surrounding a man whom her mother used to date, named Nate. What starts as a subtle curiosity grows into an obsession that threatens to shatter Livvy’s relationships with her father, her family, and her boyfriend, Jon.
One of the most compelling qualities of this novel is the intricacy and depth with which Otto develops her characters. Free from dull archetypes, each of these people harbors his or her own unique complexities and idiosyncrasies, filling the work with emotional appeal rarely found in young adult fiction. Even Livvy’s perfect-seeming father is proven to possess weaknesses neither Livvy nor the reader knew he had. In addition to humanizing detail, Otto also gives her characters smooth, realistic dialogue. This element helps the reader connect to the characters by making them feel like real people instead of simply literary constructs, and livens many scenes with humor.
Since Contessa revolves largely around the challenges that arrive with teen-hood, the reader should be prepared for some scenes of mild romance and much discussion of the importance of virginity. Though Otto never ventures into very indecent territory, this focus on teenage love makes the novel most appealing to a young, female audience. Still, the perspective offered by Livvy’s parents might help Contessa resound well with a more mature set of readers, as well.
While Contessa is certainly accessible to the young adult reader in terms of language, the content with which it deals makes it a challenging and thought-provoking read. The privileged Livvy is sharply contrasted against the less-fortunate Jon, as he gradually reveals to her the financial struggles he has faced his entire life. Without ever becoming too grim, Otto clearly delineates the socioeconomic problems that face much of America’s youth. Through Livvy’s eyes the reader also experiences the all-too-common rift that develops between teenagers and their parents upon reaching the brink of adulthood. Though Livvy is always filled with remorse, she simply cannot resist rebelling against her father. When she starts having strong feelings for Jon, her father-daughter relationship is greatly hurt as she pushes her family to the wayside.
Contessa is an enthralling work of young adult fiction, offering poignancy and depth in dealing with the adult themes of regret, guilt, poverty, and serious relationships. Female young adult readers, especially, will be able to connect with this novel, as they mature and “walk that fine line between child and adult.”
Reviewed by Claire Colburn for IndieReader