Nadia Cara has just moved to Florence with her family. Her father, a history professor, is taking a professional sabbatical to study the 1966 flood of the Arno River. However, things haven’t been quite right with Nadia since they arrived. She’s having trouble speaking and expressing herself, and she finds herself compulsively shoplifting trinkets to use in artwork she feels the need to obsessively create. Told in the first person, Nadia’s inner thoughts are jumbled and incoherent, revealing to the reader that she realizes she’s having trouble communicating but doesn’t know why. Nadia’s inability to communicate properly leads to her feeling isolated, feelings which are exacerbated when her increasingly erratic behavior causes Nadia to leave her house for long periods of time.
Nadia is a classic unreliable narrator. Things are happening around her that she can’t explain, she sees things others don’t, and her increasing inability to verbally communicate with her family means the reader doesn’t really know what’s going on. Nadia’s frustration with her own situation is apparent. She knows her family doesn’t understand her or always believe her, she’s aware that she’s become compulsive and that she’s suffering from some memory loss. Nothing makes sense to her. These frustrations are compounded by the flashbacks Nadia shares of her time spent before traveling to Italy. Nadia’s exploits with her best friend, Maggie, show the reader just how much Nadia has changed in such a short period of time. Nadia was an articulate, vivacious and intelligent young woman, and it’s hard to reconcile her past self with the broken and compulsive girl presented to the reader. Nadia’s distress over her own deterioration is matched by the actions of those around her. Shared glances between family members and overheard conversations prove to Nadia that there is something wrong with her, but no one seems to know what to do or how to help.
A little over halfway through the book, Maggie takes over as narrator. Maggie’s voice is the opposite of Nadia’s: strong and confident, intelligent and coherent. She gives the reader an idea of how Nadia used to be. Through Maggie we finally learn what’s wrong with Nadia. She has a rare mental disorder called frontotemporal dementia, the symptoms of which include obsessive thoughts, hallucinations and delusions, and the loss of the ability to express oneself. A side effect of this particular mental illness is sudden artistic ability that can present itself in different ways. For Nadia, this ability manifests in beautiful birds’ nests. Her obsessive stealing is always for items to use in her nests.
Maggie spends her days sitting with Nadia, talking of their time together, and trying her best to return the property Nadia has stolen. She also does research into Nadia’s disorder, educating herself and the reader about what Nadia is going through. A third narrator is introduced in the last pages, bringing a bit of hope to the end of Nadia’s story.
One Thing Stolen is a beautifully written but complicated novel. This is a challenging text, which makes it not the best choice for struggling or striving readers. However, for those up to the task, Kephart’s poetic story of a young woman’s struggle with identity and mental illness is a rewarding read. The author’s notes at the end include additional information about the 1966 flood of the Arno River and frontotemporal dementia.