Faced with an alcoholic beverage I would have a brief crisis of conscience each day, remembering that I was a fundamentalist Protestant child of the light in a dark, corrupted ocean of Roman Catholic paganism and alcohol-consuming superstition . . . and now I was drinking wine just like the Spaniards did while they laughed and swore and tortured real Christians because they would no longer worship Mary, whom we know was an ordinary girl, not anything special, but they worshiped her because they were pagans who served the Pope not our Lord.
Set in the early sixties, in the Italian town that provides its name, Portofino depicts young Calvin Becker’s adventures across two summer vacations. His parents serve as missionaries in Switzerland and the entire family agrees that their ten days on the northern Italian coast are the best of the year. What they don’t agree on is how to spend them. Calvin and his two sisters are forced to spend much of their time plotting how to keep their father, Ralph, from slipping into one of his moods in which he hurls insults, curses and occasionally the furniture. Calvin’s real interests are for the beach, the Banini, the town and Jennifer (his secret crush from England) but these are often thwarted by his tattling sisters and his Mother’s constant need to “lead someone to the Lord.” Calvin lives in fear that she will dig into her purse producing her “Gospel Walnut” and its accompanying prayers and pleas.
Portofino appears fictional the same way that many of Woody Allen’s films do; which is to say they don’t. Schaeffer’s story of a boy whose highly conservative, Presbyterian parents write and minister in Switzerland sounds eerily familiar to his portrayal of his famous parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, in Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back - his highly controversial 2007 publication. These similarities make parts of the book feel less like a novel and more like Schaeffer is offering the reader unsolicited access to a battle of Oedipal proportions. On the whole however, Portofino - the first in Schaeffer’s Calvin Becker trilogy - is a highly entertaining and well-written tale of sun, surf and adolescent desire set against the warmth of a beautifully rendered Italian town.