Peter Fortunato’s debut novel Carnevale portrays itself as a story unravelling the mysteries of main character Guido Diamante (Guy, to everyone outside of his large, Italian family) and his life leading up to the death of his mentor and eventual close friend, Leo. What Carnevale delivers, though, is a story of a man grappling with his shame over sex and the sexuality that comes with being an artist while raised as a devout Catholic. Coming-of-age is a better description for this novel instead of the tale of the relationship between artist and apprentice, as the story of his relationship with Leo is frequently pushed to the backburner while he deals with these more immediate issues.

Guy is an artist, and he knows he wants to be one from an early age. Despite his parents owning a Villa resort and their constant hopes that he will one day relieve them of it, they’re very supportive of his artistic pursuits. It takes half of the lengthy novel before we get there, but Guy’s parents eventually allow the local artist Leo to mentor him.

Leo starts his mentoring by teaching Guy to be a model—a nude model specifically. But Guy is afraid of sex, thanks to his intense Christian upbringing. Nudity and sexuality make him uncomfortable both with himself and with others, but Leo’s mentoring is what forces him to begin to find comfort in it. 

This is the recurring theme that seems to take center stage throughout the novel; we watch as Guy punishes himself for thinking of women—even some in his own family—in any sexual capacity. He refuses to grant himself any sexual gratification until the book jumps to his adulthood, when he seems to have come to terms with it, despite the conflicts he spent the first half of the novel battling.

This theme begins to come full circle while Guy gripes to a therapist about Gwendolyn, the woman he was forced to model alongside and who is the first woman he was forced to look at in a non-sexual way. Their brief affair leaves him hurt in a sort of bridge between his shame around sex and his learning how to be comfortable in sexualtiy and its relation to his desired career as an artist.

The novel also features recurring references to Tarot cards, ouija boards—oh, and Guy and his cousin, Tina, are apparently both psychic. All of these, while not impossible to coexist in a strictly Christian-centered family, don’t add much depth to Guy’s family dynamic, but seem to make it a little less believable. These references are sprinkled too infrequently to hold much significance and can sometimes be confusing to put into context. Carnevale boasts a lot of themes to cover, but it sometimes feels as though they’re being forced together at points.

If anything, this is a novel more about finding comfort in sex and your sexuality despite religion than it is about Guy’s relationship with Leo and the art world. The strength of family is also an important factor to Guy and his story, and as we watch his once-strong family system begin to fall apart, so continue the crumbling of the ideals he feels so much shame over. This is the real strength to Fortunato’s novel, offering a family relationship to ground the main character, one that ebbs and flows in the ways family sometimes does.

Religion, family, and relationships are the basis of this story; while there’s an attempt to add more depth to it, there are too many moving parts that seem to overcrowd the more consistent conversations happening in this book. Guy provides a very honest, personal insight into the shame that can follow coming into your sexuality as a young adult. He is frank, and at times uncomfortable—just like those topics can be growing up. But Guy’s story provides a talking point to continue this ever-evolving conversation.

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