Passers-by salute her. The barman in this Sicilian cafe is clearly a fan and a young man approaches to ask for her autograph. “I really liked your book,” he chirps.
With a flourish, Italy’s newest literary sensation signs her name in a school notebook. Melissa Panarello, author of a frank and vivid account of sexual rites of passage, a debut novel that has become a bestseller, turned 18 only last month.
Despite her tender age, Ms Panarello has sold 600,000 copies of One Hundred Strokes of the Hairbrush Before Going to Sleep, which is soon to be translated into English and made into a film. Rights have been sold to 10 countries.
She has no regrets about writing the book – based, she claims, almost entirely on her experience – or its graphic accounts of careering between younger and older men, and sado-masochism. “It’s like a drug,” she shrugs nonchalantly. “You know it’s harmful but you still continue to do it.”
The precocious teenager from small-town Sicily began writing as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, initially keeping her identity a secret. When the book was first published she refused to pose for photographs that showed her face, conducted interviews by e-mail and would not allow her surname to be revealed.
Stung by speculation that the book – written in diary form – was not the work of a real person, Melissa Panarello came out of the shadows. Now she is a local and national star, making a dozen or so appearances on Italian television so far.
She still lives with her parents but is poised and mature beyond her years, smoking cigars with an insouciant air. Sitting in this cafe in Catania, Sicily’s second city, to discuss One Hundred Strokes of the Hairbrush, she is also alarmingly matter-of-fact as she elaborates on her sexual escapades since the age of 15.
Having sex with a stream of men while still so young is, she claims, as normal as “the first day of work at a new job.” Going to bed blindfolded and apparently under duress with five men at a time – among the most unnerving passages of the book – had “not bothered” her at all.
In this, she differs from her fictional alter ego, also called Melissa, who was disgusted by the episode, which took place on her 16th birthday in a flat above the Catania fishmarket.
In the novel, Melissa tries to purge herself by brushing her long raven hair with 100 strokes before going to bed, as, she was told by her mother, princesses do in fairy tales.
Now, her mother is driving her to interviews to discuss her book, dropping her off at the cafe today and waiting for her around the corner. So what, exactly, did her parents make of the novel?
“They read the proofs before publication and, well, I think they were very upset,” admits the author, who styles herself “Melissa P”, reflecting the style of Italian news reports that refer to minors. Her mother apparently threatened to go to a lawyer before she would grant permission for the book’s publication.
“They asked me if what I had written corresponded to real life. I said I had invented the whole thing. Now, although they realise that wasn’t true, they are very proud of me. I think they have learned to grow in their outlook hand-in-hand with the success of my book.”
Critics have suggested that she is the vehicle for a clever marketing trick, pointing to the early mystery of her identity and further claiming that she could not have had such varied sexual experiences or written about them in such acerbic, poetic style.
Yet her publisher, Simone Caltabellota, from the small, independent Fazi Editore imprint, insisted that she had written “every word, every comma”.
Ms Panarello dismissed the criticism as sour grapes. “The experiences in the book are based closely on mine and I wrote everything myself,” she said. “Instead of inventing things, I’ve actually omitted some.” Such as? “I’d rather not say,” she replies, blushing for the first time.
Technically, Ms Panarello is still in her final year at school, where she studies Latin and Greek. She no longer attends classes – “they get in the way of appearances” she says, “and, anyway, I always found school boring” – but plans to sit her final exams this year with the help of a tutor.
Her great passion, though, is Dante. “If you learn Dante, you learn about life,” she says.