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Portofino (Calvin Becker Trilogy #1)

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  638 Ratings  ·  95 Reviews
Calvin Becker, the narrator of this coming-of-age-novel, is the son of an American, Bible-believing, fundamentalist family. On holiday in Italy, he manages to make friends with pagans, drinks whisky, befriends a painter - and finds romantic love with Jennifer.
Hardcover, 248 pages
Published September 1st 1992 by MacMillan Publishing Company (first published 1992)
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Sep 04, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who want to know what goes on behind the scenes of the Religious Right
If you’re still in the fundamentalist and/or evangelical fold and are familiar with the writings of Francis Schaeffer -- or even if you’ve left in the last few years -- the novel Portofino by Schaeffer’s son Frank is bound to be unnerving. Especially if you’ve also read his recent autobiography, Crazy for God.

In Portofino, Schaeffer writes about the son of an American missionary family living in Switzerland, following two of their summer holidays in the Italian town that gives the book its name.
Bob Henry
Jul 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This coming of age story is a real page-turner. I found myself at times laughing out loud, sometimes embarrassed, and often relating to Calvin's family. This is a fun novel with rights of passage and moments of brilliance all wrapped into one vacation destination. Frank Schaeffer does an amazing job of creating the tensions of a pastors family, but keeps it authentic and often very raw. This is not the "Christian Novel" that many are expecting, instead it seems more a memoir of the struggles fac ...more
Apr 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I first read this book 20 years ago, and revisited it in preparation for my holiday to the Ligurian coast, where the story is set. Told from the point of view of Calvin, the son of American Protestant fundamentalist missionaries, the narrative features two summer holidays in Portofino, one in 1962 and one in 1965. In addition to the dysfunction of the family, which can be at times sinister, at times amusing, the beauty of the area and the personality of the locals is brought to life by Schaeffer ...more
This novel has such a wealth of detail about the inner workings of certain lives that I can't help but believe that the author has drawn heavily on his own experiences.

The reason I rated it so low is primarily because the author's portrait of a dysfunctional fundamentalist Christian family on vacation. He painted them all as outrageously self-righteous liars and hypocrites. The characters are unbalanced and unlikable.

The father is particularly awful. He seldom attempts to control his rage and he
Jul 28, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Calvin Becker, the lad featured in Portofino, is one of the most self-absorbed, devious characters I've come across. In Elsa Becker, the author sketches a very strong-willed woman who uses her hyper-spiritual to manipulate others. The best thing about the novels is the wicked sense of humor. However, from this trilogy it is clear that Frank Schaeffer scorns his family but continues to make his living off of their fame. He is still hooked in! He needs to individuate and get on with his own life.
Apr 12, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Having grown up in a family with fundamentalist leanings, I resonated with Calvin's desire to be "normal" and burst into laughter at several points as Schaeffer painted a picture of how ridiculous we Christians can sometimes seem. At the same time, the book paints a sad picture of broken people who feel the need to hide their brokenness behind religious platitudes. I kept changing my mind about whether I liked the story or not, and the 3 star rating reflects the fact that I still can't make up m ...more
Jan 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved it. A young boy's amusing attempt to be normal in a religiously fanatic family. Good stuff, especially if you went to one of those kinds of churches, colleges, etc. Should be on the shelves of reasonable church libraries in the "therapy" section.
Nov 06, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I grew up Fundamentalist so I can relate to this book.
Jun 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great story telling The least believable parts are the least fictional

The best way to enjoy this book is if you know almost nothing about the author. Therefore this will have two parts. Why this is a good read and then what you do not need to know.

Potofino is a fun, funny and touching book. It is the first of three books about a teen aged Calvin Becker and his humorous journey from the self-obsessive awareness of childhood into the larger world view of a not yet adult. This is generally termed
Bert Stanaland
Mar 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent!!! This is the honest, innocent account of life in a super religious missionary family, who are out to convert the Catholics in Switzerland and their vacation spot in Italy and yet Mom uses her prayers to correct the Dad and maintain her superiority over him. Dad has a nasty temper and even went so far as to throw all the supper dishes on the floor in one of his tantrums, and yank the toilet tank off the wall. This is humorous, and fun, just charming. I hated to see it end. No profanit ...more
Steve Pifer
Jan 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own-and-read
Selected this book, in part, b/c it made me think of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, which I really enjoyed. Picked this book up at a used Book Store in Asheville, NC for a pittance also because its setting was in Italy, 1960's, whose main character is a 12 year old boy in a coming of age type of story. Thats hitting alot of my buttons, so it was a no brainer that I would at least give it a try.
The story is of an American family who are missionaries to the "lost Catholics in Sweeden" and is nar
The book was a little slow going in the beginning. I had heard so much about this author being a real thinker in his non-fiction books, that my expectations were high. But the book seemed overly simplistic -probably because they are told from a young boy's point of view. And that's what I decided, about midway through the book, that I would remember as I read it. I would remind myself this was all from the perspective of a young boy's mind, and not be critical with the boy's perspective because ...more
Aug 27, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: post-college
This is the most disturbing book I've read in years, probably since I read the absolutely sick The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

I did enjoy a few things about the book. I loved Calvin's joy. He really has an amazing joy for living. It's not every kid who can seem to get to know everyone in a town just by visiting them for 10 days a year, especially when he doesn't really speak the language. Some of the coming of age stories were priceless, like the octopus hun
This book appears to be either loved or hated by the majority. I read it out of curiosity; and I found myself right in the middle of the extremes of opinion. The descriptions of an Italian seaside resort are realistic and evocative, and some of the narrator's thought-processes humorously logical. Yet there's violence and sordidity, which means I'm unlikely to want to read the sequels.

Evidently at least part autobiographical, I found this novel at times amusing - sometimes against my better judg
Jul 06, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: missionary
This is an delightful, joyous, laugh out loud funny novel from a very gifted writer. I've never visited the Italian town of Portofino, but while reading this I seemed to vividly experience the sensual beauty of the place. I recommended this book to a friend who had just returned from Portofino who said this novel did capture its beauties in amazing detail.
One can read this as a coming of age story and yet this obviously autobiographical novel is somewhat unnerving for those of us familiar with
Oct 28, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I liked this author's non-fiction and thought I'd try his fiction. This book is hilarious. At least partially autobiographical, it's the story of a boy (10 in the first half; 13 in the second half) named Calvin who goes on vacation every year to Portofino, Italy. His parents are fundamentalist missionaries of a severely Calvinist sect that keeps splitting; his mother is one of those super-pious types who weaponize prayers and try to "witness" to strangers on trains using gimmicky things like the ...more
Nov 27, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
On one level, this was a really good book--funny, told from a kid's point of view, in a lovely setting, etc. It was also convicting--how easy it is to be that self-righteous mom, especially when dealing with a husband who doesn't always do things the way you would (i.e. any husband).

On another level, though, it felt like a betrayal. From what I've read, the novel is loosely autobiographical and based on the author's childhood at L'Abri with Francis and Edith Schaeffer. L'Abri always seemed like
Julie - Book Hooked Blog
This is not one I would have ever picked up on my own. To be honest, I still find the cover to be a total turnoff. It looks boring and my heart sank a little when I picked it up from the library. I'm so glad I gave it a try though, because it felt like I was reading the story of my life. Frank Schaeffer is the son of theologian Francis Schaeffer, and this novel is considered to be largely autobiographical. Calvin's story is told in such a delightful way, despite the serious challenges he and his ...more
Adam Shields
Short Review: an autobiographical novel of a missionary family's vacations in Italy. This is clearly a fictional version of the Schaeffer family and the start of Frank working out his demons that he later was more explicit about in his two memoirs. One of Frank Schaeffer's strengths as a writer is that he can have characters do and say horrible things without losing compassion for the character themselves. But, I think because I have read his memoirs first, there is an uncomfortable feeling read ...more
Oct 11, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I read this many years ago, and then re-read it a couple of years ago. Frank Schaeffer is a convert to the Orthodox church, as am I, and I find these books so fascinating because....I don't agree with him politically at all. He has been very harshly critical of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and has a son in the military. He is very hard on non-Orthodox, really sounding like he has contempt for Protestants. But these books: I can't quite figure out what part of him they're coming from. Like, the ...more
Mike Jensen
Franky’s thinly disguised autobiographical novel is of two vacations taken with his scary fundamentalist family. There is some invention, and events from elsewhere are imagined and take place during these two trips, but this is unmistakably Fran & Edith Schaeffer and three of their children. I read all of the Schaeffer’s books during a decade of my life and imagined they were wonderful people. This book, and Franky’s autobiography CRAZY FOR GOD, correct this. Probably the greatest attraction ...more
Dec 19, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Someone who grew up as a fundmentalist Christian
Having been raised by strong fundamentalists, I had a hard time putting this book down. The language of the prayers, the choruses, the "winessing", the embarrassment of not feeling normal is probably universal among children who grew up in the same boat. I liked the subplot with Jennifer, a British girl whom he sees every year that the family takes their vacation in Italy. The flaws of the parents are so glaring. Yet, young Calvin, the protagonist, manages to have lots of beach friends. I would ...more
Wendy L
What a sweet, touching, uproariously funny novel! As one of those pagan Roman Catholics the Beckers were trying to "save", I was able to enjoy the book without the baggage of knowing the author's parents in real life were reknowned Protestant missionaries. That knowledge seems to be responsible for some of the ambivalent reviews.

The story reminded me of the show, "The Wonder Years," only set a decade earlier and much funnier. The narrator's voice is utterly convincing as a 10 to 14 year old boy
Melanie Griffin
May 09, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Kind of a fun read. Nothing earth-shattering, but quite funny in parts. A coming of age story about an American boy whose missionary family's job is to convert Catholics to "real" Christianity. It's told in annual vacation stories that take in place in Italy. It's a good send-up of missionaries in general, but of Calvinism in particular. It is a great portrait of a screwed up family hiding behind religion to seem righteous. Violent preacher father, manipulative mother, obnoxious sisters.
It's a
Sep 10, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I did not expect to like this book as much as I did, considering how little I have in common with the lead character. However, I did find that I could relate to his spirit and the way he questioned so many things and did what he wanted to. I thought the book was very well written and interesting to read. I did not find it as funny as others did, though the family interactions are humorous. Mostly I thought it was kind of a sad book because the family is scared of the dad and his behavior. I was ...more
Jeff Trueman
What a MARVELOUS read! Schaeffer captures the thoughts and emotions of that MK (missionary kid) to a "T"! The two other books in the trilogy are also highly recommended (Saving Grandma, Zermatt.) I admit that I was a bit disturbed by the apparent autobiographical nature of the story. The family seems to fit almost perfectly with Frank Schaeffer's family, but the way he portrays the parents doesn't seem at all like the Francis & Edith Schaeffer I sort of "got to know" through his many books. ...more
Jul 30, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Super book, very entertaining, especially in providing some inside perspective into a missionary kids life and the world of a child of a celebrity evangelical leader. I read his autobiography as well (Crazy for God), and there is a lot of cross-over between that and this autobiographical novel. So much so that you have to wonder what stories in Portofino are entirely made up and which ones are just exaggerations. I suspect most are exaggerations, but even then, how much are they exaggerated?

Leroy Seat
Jul 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-fiction
This book was delightfully written, but it was a little hard on missionaries. But maybe those who are as conservative and narrow as Calvin's parents were need to be made fun of to a degree.

Those who enjoyed the negative comments about the religious faith of Calvin's parents would probably find my book interesting. It is "Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism." (The book is available from and

Christine Sinclair
I bought this book because of the title. I love Portofino, Italy, and will actually see it in person someday. The story of two family vacations in Italy, as described by Calvin Becker, is funny, beautiful, embarrassing and sometimes scary. Because I am neither a devout Roman Catholic, nor a born-again Christian, the religious aspect was amusing as well. The Beckers are Presbyterian missionaries who never go on vacation from their desire to convert people to the one true religion, theirs. Well wo ...more
Sep 10, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book made me laugh and cringe at the antics of the family. It actually takes place over 3 different summer vacations. All told from the perspective of the only boy in the family. Frank Schaeffer has done a wonderful job with "getting into" this boys mind. He has done a wonderful job of showing how the parents seem to embarrass him by their normal everyday actions. I found myself laughing loudly through this book. This is a book I would love to own just for the sheer pleasure of being ale to ...more
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Frank Schaeffer is a New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books. Frank is a survivor of both polio and an evangelical/fundamentalist childhood, an acclaimed writer who overcame severe dyslexia, a home-schooled and self-taught documentary movie director, a feature film director of four low budget Hollywood features Frank has described as “pretty terrible.” He is also an acclaimed ...more
More about Frank Schaeffer...

Other Books in the Series

Calvin Becker Trilogy (3 books)
  • Zermatt
  • Saving Grandma

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“But our prayers needed to be long so that we might not hide our lamp under a bushel, so that we wouldn’t get to heaven and find that we had been ashamed of the Lord and that because of this He would say we had denied Him before men so He would deny us before the Father.” 0 likes
“When Bible-believing fundamentalist Reformed Protestants go on vacation in Roman Catholic Italy, surrounded by unbelievers, they must witness to the truth.” 0 likes
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