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100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed
by Maria Luisa Romano

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Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the publishers or editors of Best of Sicily. The book reviewed here presents sexually explicit content which may offend some readers.


Cover photo of Melissa Panarello.In the year since its publication, it has effortlessly scaled the summit of Italy's bestseller list, becoming the bestselling Sicilian novel since The Leopard (by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa), with over 700,000 copies sold in Italy. This statistic alone is nothing short of astounding in a nation of something short of 60 million not usually distinguished for its voracious readers. (It implies that slightly more than one percent of all Italians have a copy of this little book.) The fact that the book owes its success to a readership composed primarily of women between fifteen and thirty makes it even more unusual. Recently published in English translation, One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed (in the original Italian Cento Colpi di Spazzola Prima di Andare a Dormire) is a young Sicilian woman's quasi-autobiographical story told in the form of a diary. Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention that it's an erotic novel written by a seventeen year-old girl, at least partly inspired by actual experiences she had when she was fifteen (more about that later). The author, Melissa Panarello, was a student in a classical studies high school in Catania, though she is now a university student in Rome.

"Men are never satisfied with your body; beyond caressing it, kissing it, they want it to be imprinted in their heads, never to be erased."

Living in a coastal Sicilian town near Catania, the protagonist, "Melissa," who is fourteen at the story's beginning, dreams of erotic but endlessly true love. The story actually begins with the teenage girl viewing her body in a curious but disinterested way, in her bedroom, wondering whether she will ever find true love. She embarks on the quest for the perfect man, using internet chat rooms, personal ads and high school networking as her methods for meeting men. Melissa's first-time sexual experiences segue to a varied series of encounters with older men and also women. Recounted in great detail with disarming candor, One Hundred Strokes takes us through a hidden world of sex in and around Sicily's second largest city, though it could just as easily have been Rome or Milan (or Tokyo, Toronto or Topeka).

"He said he would do it with me only if nothing came of it, if there'd be nothing between us but sex."

Is a young woman's sexuality a universal constant? This novel is actually part of a trend of women's erotic novels going mainstream. What makes it a little different from the others, apart from its being set in what is generally (probably erroneously) considered a morally repressed part of Italy, is the extreme youth of both protagonist and author. It also has a strong "social" angle. In a country where marital infidelity, trophy foreign wives, marriages-of-convenience, spouse-swapping, the pursuit of nubile young girls by older men and other "sexual phenomena" could almost be considered normal, this explicit "sex diary" has scandalized many Italians over forty while encouraging younger ones --especially young women-- to seek new erotic experiences. It is perhaps not coincidental that the protagonist loudly decries what she views as Italians' innate hypocrisy in all things sexual, particularly their deceptive social facades in romantic relationships. The young protagonist discovers her power over men, and grows to resent the games imposed by what she views as rigid rules of courtship.

"I entered the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and no longer saw the image of that girl who took such delight in examining herself..."

Panarello's observations hardly coincide with the romantic clichés of Laura Pausini, the innocent twentysomething singer believed to represent a generation of young Italian women, but her blunt narrative flows in a comfortable vernacular that transcends age and gender. Frankly, in view of today's explicit --even vulgar-- situations and language in song and cinema, it's hard to imagine a book like this scandalizing anybody except perhaps a cloistered nun. Has the erotic novel finally gone mainstream, with little Melissa Panarello riding the crest of a huge new literary wave?

"He rose and kissed me, and I tasted my juices on his mouth, and they tasted sweet."

A good question, perhaps, but subtle social commentary is, at best, secondary here. Self-discovery is key. The novel's title refers to Melissa's act of brushing her hair before going to sleep following a particularly distasteful escapade with a married man she describes as a worm. Here in Italy, where long flowing hair and feminine identity go hand in hand, a simple physical gesture serves as a therapeutic anchor. It becomes a girl's emotional point of reference amidst a woman's increasingly bizarre experiences. One Hundred Strokes covers about two years in the life of a girl given to erotic adventure that reaches its zenith on her sixteenth birthday, when an intimate male acquaintance arranges for her to have casual, The real Melissa P.uninhibited sex with him and four other men. Blindfolded. In an apartment overlooking the colorful Pescheria (Fish Market) of Catania, across a large square from the cathedral and the bishop's residence. Her explicit diary is Melissa's only confidant. She keeps her experiences secret, revealing little or nothing to her friends.

"His moans were killing me, I lost control. It's easy to lose control with him."

Panarello herself likes the work of Anaïs Nin and Almudena Grandes. The fictional Melissa's story has been compared to French author Catherine Millet's Sexual Life of Catherine M, written in a similar style, and in the wake of her success a number of women's erotic novels have been published in Italy. It is the protagonist's (and author's) age, not her experiences or the location (Sicily), that make this book unusual. There's really nothing Italy-specific in this book's plot, except that the Sicilian men behave like, well, Sicilian men.

"Over the past few months the lust has been agonizing. I've touched myself since I thought I'd go out of my mind..."

How closely do the real-life experiences of Melissa Panarello, presently (September 2004) nineteen, parallel those of the novel's fictional "Melissa P," who is equally young and attractive? Initially, the author's surname was witheld because of her age; she was seventeen when One Hundred Strokes was published. Miss Panarello reveals that many --if not most-- of the experiences in the novel are, in fact, her own. "I wrote the book to understand myself better, to come to terms with what happened to me," she says. She also describes how she managed to enjoy numerous escapades without being "caught" by her parents or "found out" by her friends. The "fictional" diary covers two years of experiences which, according to Panarello, took place during a single twelve-month period. The photogenic Melissa, who enjoys fine cigars, is relishing the spotlight, and has made the circuit of Italian talk shows and book presentations. She plans to leave Sicily and is sure to become a "personality" here in Italy. One Hundred Strokes has been translated into several languages and a motion picture is planned.

Like the fictional Melissa, the real one lives in a small town on the Ionian coast (though the book never mentions Panarello's town, Aci Castello, by name) and commutes to high school in Catania. There are some apparent conflicts, or at least differences, between the protagonist and the real Melissa. The novel's Melissa is disgusted by her blindfolded group sex with five men, while Panarello herself views it more favorably but refuses to discuss particulars of her real-life experiences. In the novel, Melissa fails to find true love. The real Melissa is dating the son of her publisher. On Italy's sensationalistic Maurizio Costanzo Show, Panarello explained that the correlation between her experiences and those described in the book is irrelevant. After all, the book is being sold as a work of fiction. A good point, but things can get complicated when an officially "fictional" work of this kind is marketed as a form of biography, even if this has little to do with the work itself.

The truth? The truth is that this little book may not have been needed to bring the youngest Italian women out of the Sexual Stone Age, but it has certainly brought their sex lives out into the open, and there's no turning back the clock now. The lid has been wrenched loose from Pandora's Box, probably forever. It was always an open secret that many single Italian women over eighteen experienced casual sex away from home --in another country or another part of Italy-- but One Hundred Strokes approaches the issue of sex right here at home, with local men, involving girls who are still in high school. In one skillful stroke Melissa Panarello has shattered the myth of the flirtatious, alluring, sexy, but seemingly conservative, Italian girl. Hypocrisy be damned.

Some of Melissa's comments:

"I showed the hypocrisy of Italian society, things like adult men having sex with young girls, and the illusions of internet sex."

"I was always aware of what I was doing and this awareness gave these actions dignity. I did it in a dignified way because I was aware of what I was doing. It doesn't make any difference that I was just fifteen. You can have self-awareness at any age. A young girl of the age that I was doesn't usually go looking for adventures, but for real experiences. For me, it wasn't just having sex to pass the time, as older women do. I was searching for a true experience."

"It's very easy to hide things like this. Married women have affairs and they can hide it without a problem. I was also able to hide things."

"All of the experiences are mine. I experienced all of these things. In the book, I described it all in a more dramatic way, but I didn't make anything up."

"No one else knew anything. In the morning, I went to school like every other girl and in the evening I met men. Sometimes I would stay out until six in the morning and I had to be in school by seven thirty."

No doubt about it, Panarello's book has deeply thrust erotic fiction into the mainstream market in Italy. (Until now, the bestselling Sicilian "erotic" fiction was The Professor and the Mermaid, a coyly innocent short story written in 1957.) It's tempting to speculate about the influence of books like Panarello's on young Italian women, most of whom are already liberated sexually. Will novels like One Hundred Strokes prompt a Second Sexual Revolution, or are they merely the reflection of a revolution already in progress? Despite everything, there's nothing intrinsically revolutionary or unorthodox in Miss Panarello's socio-sexual views, though some of her political ones (expressed on her website and elsewhere) are slightly less orthodox. But she's on solid ground when she says that the simple act of sex is one of the purest, least complicated things a woman can know. Even in sleepy, provincial Aci Castello.

It should be said that Lawrence Venuti's English translation is perfectly faithful to the nuances of the Italian original, though the English editions might have been a little more complete with a few lines of explanatory text to tell us, for example, that Nicolosi is a town on the slopes of Mount Etna, or that Via Etnea is the main street in Catania. One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed may be purchased on Best of Sicily's books page.

Editor's Note: In keeping with the editorial policy stated in our Magazine's table of contents, this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publishers or editors of Best of Sicily. As erotic fiction, the book reviewed here contains sexually explicit content which may offend some readers.

For the benefit of readers outside Italy, it should be noted that this book describes some sexual situations involving a 15 year-old girl with men over 21, something which would be illegal in some countries and in certain parts of the European Union and the United States. In the Italian Republic, where the age of lawful sexual consent is 14 and citizens reach the age of majority at 18, statute allows for prosecution of an adult who has had sexual relations with a minor under 16 if the adult is a teacher or other figure responsible for the minor's care. In practice, however, such legal prosecution is extremely rare, and it is not particularly unusual for a girl of 16 to be romantically involved with a man of 22 --though not necessarily with her teacher! Regarding other situations present in this work, Italy has no minimum age for purchase or consumption of alcoholic beverages, and sexual acts are illegal in public places, or in automobiles parked on public property. Enforcement in all these matters is very lax.

About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has written for various Italian magazines. She recently authored an article for this publication dealing with sex in Sicily.

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© 2004 Maria Luisa Romano