Melissa Panarello’s fictional memoir One Hundred Strokes Of The Brush Before Bed is an English translation of an Italian novella. I am surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before as it has sold over 700,000 copies in Italy and has been hailed as an international literary phenomenon. It is a slim book, 119 pages, more novella than novel which was a promising sign as four of my favourite books are novellas – Leonard Michael’s Sylvia, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat and Alfred Hayes In Love.
This book left me feeling sad. Like Melissa, author and protagonist, I spent my teenage years craving love. My diaries were filled with yearnings to be loved deeply. I thought boys craved love too. Melissa’s experience says otherwise. It says they crave sex and nothing else. That makes me sad. It makes the bundle of love letters from my teenage years worthless. It makes those letters nothing more than an attempt to bed me. A lifelong romantic, I will continue to hope and believe that those lovely letters were penned from the heart.
At the beginning of the book, which is written in diary format based on Melissa’s real diaries, she sits alone in her bedroom and writes: “I want love. I want to feel my heart melt. I want to sink into a river of passion.” As the hot, Italian summer unfolds, she follows her desires where they lead, embarking on a string of sexual affairs – lesbian, transsexual, heterosexual, group sex – in the hope that someone might fall in love with her.
I am shocked but not shocked that a girl as young as Melissa (fourteen upwards in her diaries) can be be taken advantage of sexually so brutally but willingly, in so many ways, by so many different people, none of whom appear to care for her. What stands out the most is the lack of guidance in her life. Physically, she was surrounded by people, but mentally and emotionally she was alone with her insecurities, using sex as a means to bolster her fragile self esteem.