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Review: Forbidden Rome – Mario Dell’Olio

Forbidden Rome - Mario Dell'Olio

Genre: Tomance, Historical

LGBTQ+ Category: Gay

Reviewer: Ulysses, Paranormal Romance Guild

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About The Book

A story of self-discovery, disillusionment, and coming of age, Mario’s newest book, Forbidden Rome, follows Kevin and Anthony’s journey to find themselves and each other in the 80s.

Forbidden Rome takes you on a journey to Rome where those friends discover the meaning of love. Anthony ends up falling for Kevin, and they must choose to either live with this secret or risk the consequences from those around them. The fervor of passions realized, and the frustration of unreturned love washes over the hearts of Anthony and Kevin as they wrestle with what they truly desire.

From clandestine sexual escapades to heartfelt expressions of love, each man must choose their own path forward. With escalating pressures from both home and their religion, Anthony and Kevin’s love is tested, and they must both decide if their love is worth risking everything they’ve built for themselves, their future career, dreams of inspiring others, and their new-found relationship.

How do they come to terms with being gay in the 1980s? Can their love survive the onslaught of homophobia? Packed with raw emotion, Forbidden Rome will rile you out of your comfort zone to root for these young men as they discover what’s most important in life: love.

Three passionate young men travel to Rome eager to begin an exciting new chapter of their lives. International studies amid ancient ruins and romantic fountains expose them to an extraordinary new world. Wonderment, homesickness, and adventure transform into the need for human touch and comfort. Anthony falls in love with Kevin leading to a passionate affair that can only endure in secret.

Fearing the consequences of being discovered, they cling to each other and their newfound love. Can their clandestine love affair survive the foolishness of youth? Will their newly discovered passions win out over their ambitions? Journey with them as their forbidden love is tested by passion, prejudice, and ambition.

The Review

Well, folks, this is not a typical PRG book; but it was a hugely interesting book for me. It IS a romance, but not an easy one. The only paranormal element in the story is, well, Christianity. The pope, it dawns on me, appears to be the all-powerful wizard, and his castle is no less than the Vatican. 

Set in 1982 and the years following, “Forbidden Rome” follows two young American Roman Catholic men on their journey towards the priesthood at the most prestigious seminary for American priests in the world: the North American College in Rome. Kevin is a working-class Irish boy from Hartford, and Anthony is a middle-class Italian boy from the Bronx. They have been the classic “good boys” all their lives—virtuous, studious, devout. The priesthood is their dream, and the pride of their devout Catholic families. 

Yikes. Let me preface this by saying that I was the same sort of child at exactly the same time: except I was Episcopalian, and by the time I got to college, I had realized that being gay and being religious were (in that period) incompatible.When this story starts in 1982, I had drifted away from the church of my childhood, started my secular career, and had a (Jewish) boyfriend of seven years.

What I did not have was the influence of a profoundly manipulative culture of guilt and social pressure that is deeply entrenched in the Roman Catholic church (and also that of orthodox evangelical Protestantism). One of the most important parts of this book is its close-up explanation of the power of the Catholic church to shape the lives of its young adherents. In the early 1980s I had close friends who were part of Dignity, a group dedicated to helping gay Catholics make peace with their church and their sexuality. Of course, Catholic churches did not allow Dignity to meet on their premises (still don’t), so they met in Episcopal churches.

Back to our story:  Fifty young men in their early twenties arrive at the Vatican, overwhelmed with the truth that they are the golden boys, the chosen few to represent the United States at the most elite of all Catholic seminaries. 

Rome and the Vatican itself are described with love and joy—something I’ve experienced firsthand (with my boyfriend-turned-husband and our teenaged children). The exhilaration and wide-eye enthusiasm of these would-be priests is palpable and endearing. St. Peter’s Square and the entire city state of the Vatican is a carefully staged set-piece that demonstrates the majesty, beauty, and power of the Church of Rome. How could these impressionable young men in their early twenties NOT be dazzled?

While the central story is that of Kevin and Anthony, they are not alone. There is Miguel, a rich Mexican-Texan from a cattle ranch, and a variety of other “good boys” from across the country. Raised in the “relaxed” Catholicism of Vatican II, the sudden formality and watchful eye of the papal curia begins to alter their perspective.

What startled me most is the idea that these young men would somehow embrace their gayness and form friendships on that basis, all the while fully expecting that, when the time came, they would take vows of celibacy and obedience and turn into the priests they dreamed of being. They are living in a time of enormous stress and change in the Catholic church—something I remember from the news, but never experienced personally. 

The majesty of Catholicism is presented in counterpoint to its darker underside—sexual abuse and astonishing hypocrisy in the context of an almost sociopathic culture of ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell.’  These are young men who yearn to be priests; to do good in the world as Christians. Their stumbling block is their sexuality and their inability to accept that they are inherently evil because of it. 

Of course AIDS raises its ugly head, as it would for every gay man of my generation. Dell’Olio throws a lot at the reader in the last quarter of the book, and his resolution of the romance is torturous and (for me) painfully drawn out. But, if you are not a Catholic and ever had a Catholic friend who struggled with his faith, then this is a book to read.

Four stars.

The Reviewer

Ulysses Grant Dietz grew up in Syracuse, New York, where his Leave It to Beaver life was enlivened by his fascination with vampires, from Bela Lugosi to Barnabas Collins. He studied French at Yale, and was trained to be a museum curator at the University of Delaware. A curator since 1980, Ulysses has never stopped writing fiction for the sheer pleasure of it. He created the character of Desmond Beckwith in 1988 as his personal response to Anne Rice’s landmark novels. Alyson Books released his first novel, Desmond, in 1998. Vampire in Suburbia, the sequel to Desmond, is his second novel.

Ulysses lives in suburban New Jersey with his husband of over 41 years and their two almost-grown children.

By the way, the name Ulysses was not his parents’ idea of a joke: he is a great-great grandson of Ulysses S. Grant, and his mother was the President’s last living great-grandchild. Every year on April 27 he gives a speech at Grant’s Tomb in New York City.

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