by Domenica de Rosa
Emily Robinson sits on her vine-shaded terrace composing her newspaper column ‘Thoughts from Tuscany’. It is a weekly column describing her idyllic life in Italy: her Tuscan farmhouse (faithfully restored to its primitive dignity), her breakfast of espresso coffee, melon and homegrown ripe figs; her successful and loving husband, Paul, and amusing children; she describes the early morning cockcrow, and, of course, the superb climate. ‘And when I think of rush hour’ she writes, ‘I smile’. She presses ‘Send’, and another ‘Thoughts from Tuscany’ is dispatched.
Within the Villa Serena, in the dark, cool kitchen, her teenage daughters, Siena and Paris, and little Charlie eat their Coco Pops and Marmite toast, except for Paris, who nibbles a Mars Bar. There is a text message from her husband who is presently in London:
‘sorry darling. not coming home. am leaving you. p.’
And the water is off again because p. has not paid the water bill, which means a long, hot drive in her Fiat Punto through the beautiful Alpi della Luna to the marble palazzo of the Idraulica (water company).
When Emily and her husband first fell in love with the Villa Serena such a drive would have delighted Emily, who would have exclaimed at every crumbling archway or lapis blue Madonna, until Siena and Paris began to mimic her: ‘Oh look! A dustbin. How charming! Oh look, a typical Italian drug addict. Che carina!’ So admiring the scenery in Tuscany has become just another daily duty: make beds, cook lunch, sweep floors, admire view. And the nearest thing to a cockcrow is the mosquito whine of Giancarlo on his Vespa as he grins at Paris before he calls loudly for Siena.
Domenica de Rosa writes so well that it is impossible to convey the spirit of VILLA SERENA without quoting her. She writes blithely and wittily, and her novel bowls along as though, like Nancy Mitford, she is a clever woman talking on the telephone to a friend. But beneath the lively, brilliant novelist lives a perceptive, talented and astute historian. She writes with concern and serious understanding of her subjects, whether they are ancient Etruscans or modern Italians. She passes off with a light word what must be significant knowledge and insight. The trauma for Italy of WWII, the paradox of the priests and the pro-lifers versus the stress and demands of modern life, the Mafia, and the dark chill beneath the warmth of the day. Visitors to Italy appreciate the cheerfulness, the great art, the stylishness and good manners to be found in Italy; Domenica de Rosa gently reminds us that her fictional village of Monte Albano torn apart between 1939 and 1945 between the murderous Nazi SS, supposed to be allies, and their Fascist supporters, and supporters of Mussolini. In fierce opposition were the partisans, the communists, the traitors and informers, the partigiani, the profoundly religious, the priests and nuns, and all the other bitter, revengeful factions. Most of us have no experience or understanding of life in a proud country under occupation by a foreign power. Domenica de Rosa never allows this deeper side to impinge on the sheer pleasure and delight of reading VILLA SERENA. We meet intellectual Monica and her smart, sophisticated women friends. We also meet archeologist Raffaello, born in Monte Albano, who has spent years in the U.S.A. We meet the next-door farmers (they have wide screen TV, statuettes of Mary and the saints, and a plush three piece suite). And we get to know the dog and the daily help quite well, for both are important to the plot. Perhaps most important to Emily herself is her lifelong friend, Petra, who lives in Brighton, which is vividly described in the book.
Thank you to the Downs Book Group, Brighton, for providing this review