The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies

This is the first of Dinah Jefferies’ novels not to be set in Asia. After being whisked off by her previous six books to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, French Indochina and other fascinating settings, it was a surprise to find that her latest one takes place in Italy. I do love reading about Italy, though, and this setting – Rome and Tuscany during World War II – was just as interesting as the others.

The Contessa of the title is Sofia de’ Corsi, who lives with her husband Lorenzo in their Tuscan villa in the Val d’Orcia. Lorenzo works for the Ministry of Agriculture but Sofia knows very little about what his work actually involves, other than that it takes him away from home for long periods of time. The war is in its final years – the story begins in November 1943 – yet life in Italy is becoming more dangerous and more complicated than ever. Much of the country is still under German martial law and although the Allies are advancing and driving the German army back, their progress is very slow. Not only do Italians have the Nazis to worry about, however, but they are also fighting each other, with anti-Fascist partisans locked in civil war with supporters of Mussolini and his Fascist forces.

When James, a British radio engineer, is found wounded near Sofia’s home she offers to give him shelter, but knowing that Lorenzo would be worried for her safety, she decides to keep his presence a secret from her husband. Meanwhile, Maxine, an Italian-American spy, has arrived from Rome to stay with Sofia, having been given the job of gathering information about the Germans to pass on to the resistance and the Allies. But with the Nazi officers stationed in the village beginning to grow suspicious about Sofia’s household, the two women and their loved ones could be in danger.

I have to confess that before I read The Tuscan Contessa I knew very little about Italy during the war, so I was pleased to find that a timeline is included at the front of the book, outlining the key events from the Italian perspective. This helped me to understand what had been happening in the months prior to the beginning of the novel and how there were so many different groups all working with or against each other: the German occupiers, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the Partisans and communists, Allied soldiers and SOE spies. It’s not surprising that Sofia and her friends are never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted and who might be about to betray them. One thing I really liked about the novel is the way Jefferies shows that there are good and bad people on all sides of any conflict and that both friends and enemies can be found where they are least expected.

Although there are plenty of male characters, all with significant roles to play in the novel, the focus is mainly on the women and the decisions they have to make to keep themselves and their families safe. I liked Sofia but the other characters felt less well drawn and I even found myself confusing some of them with each other. I didn’t feel that I ever truly got to know and understand Maxine, which was a shame because her storyline should have been the most exciting and compelling, as her work took her into some very dangerous situations. It seemed that the characters sometimes took second place to the history unfolding around them, which made the story less emotionally gripping than it could have been.

This is not one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m still glad I read it even if just for the knowledge I’ve gained of 1940s Italy!

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Every Eye by Isobel English – #1956Club

This week Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon from Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their club events, where we all read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time the year is 1956, which seems to have been a fantastic year for publishing! There were a lot of books that sounded very appealing to me, but there were only two already on my TBR and I decided on this one, Every Eye by Isobel English. This short novella, published by Persephone, has fewer than 150 pages (including the preface by Neville Braybrooke), so was perfect for me at the moment when I’m struggling to concentrate on longer books; my usual reading patterns seem to have been disrupted all year and I don’t know when they will get back to normal.

Anyway, Every Eye is narrated by Hatty, a woman in her thirties who is married to Stephen, a younger man. At the beginning of the book, she and Stephen are preparing to go on a belated honeymoon to Ibiza, when she receives the news that Cynthia has died. Who is Cynthia? Well, she’s the woman who married Hatty’s Uncle Otway many years earlier and who was to become one of the most influential figures in her young life. As Hatty and Stephen travel by train across France and Spain, the story moves back and forth between past and present as Hatty reflects on her childhood and her memories of Cynthia, Uncle Otway – and the older man, Jasper, with whom she had her first romantic relationship.

The book is structured in a way that I would often have found irritating; one continuous narrative with no chapter breaks and sudden jumps between past and present tense as Hatty alternates between telling the story of her trip to Ibiza and reminiscing about episodes from her past. Here, though, the structure works very well and, perhaps because the book is so short, it doesn’t have time to become annoying or confusing. And Isobel English writes beautifully! I am in the habit now of looking out for interesting, inspiring or thought-provoking passages to quote in my monthly Commonplace Book posts; with some books I struggle to find any, but with Every Eye there was a line or a paragraph worthy of being quoted on almost every page. There’s a lovely sense of place too; the descriptions of the scenery through which Hatty and Stephen pass on their journey across Europe are gorgeous and vivid:

Trailing banks of giant blue convolvulus, purple bougainvillea twisted into the formal intricacy of black wrought iron – all hang downward toward the sea. Lemons in the hotel garden, still green but ripening in patches, and below the shelving gardens, the wilder unfenced land parceled into small plots, sloping away to the sea’s edge: everywhere the stunted grey of the olive trees. With our small rationed vision we are like greedy children looking everywhere for more and more; we stare into the brilliance like seers, seeking an unsimple and deeper quality; when we do not find it, we call it surfeit.

The title of the book refers to Hatty’s ‘lazy eye’, which gives her the appearance of not looking straight ahead. She considers this to be a deformity – something that makes her unattractive and undesirable – and even after having an operation to correct it, it still has an impact on her self-confidence. Sight and vision are important themes in the novel, not just in the sense of Hatty having eye problems, but also in how we see other people and how they see us. For example:

After the first six months of our knowing each other, I found it impossible to carry within my mind a clear picture of myself in relation to Jasper. My vision was blurred, because I had outwardly accepted the state.

Or this:

I thought always before the operation on my eye that the source of discordancy between myself and other people lay in the distortion of my own vision; I did not know then as I do now that this outward sign was only the visible proof of inward impediment.

Despite her problems with vision, or maybe because of them, it seems that by the end of the story Hatty can see things more clearly than anyone else. I had heard that this book had one of those amazing last lines that make you catch your breath, so I was expecting something special – and yes, it was worth waiting for (but not quite as powerful as the last sentence of another Persephone, Little Boy Lost). This is a beautiful, atmospheric book and although it’s not one of my absolute favourite Persephones, it’s certainly one I’m glad I read and a great choice for 1956 Club!

Here are some other books from 1956, previously reviewed here on my blog:

Death in Cyprus by MM Kaye
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
Death on a Quiet Day by Michael Innes
Mary of Carisbrooke by Margaret Campbell Barnes

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson – #1920Club

I wasn’t sure whether I would manage to read and review anything in time for this week’s 1920 Club (hosted by Karen and Simon) but when I picked up E.F. Benson’s 1920 novel Queen Lucia I found it so entertaining and easy to read that I finished most of it in one day! Although I can’t quite say that I loved it, it was just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment – something that would take my mind off the current situation for a while and whisk me away to another time and place.

That place is Riseholme, a quiet English village described by a newcomer as a “delicious, hole-in-the-corner, lazy backwater sort of place, where nothing ever happens, and nobody ever does anything,” but which, to the people who live there, is the centre of the universe. Life in Riseholme consists mainly of arranging dinner parties and musical evenings, while gossiping about the neighbours – and presiding over all of this is Emmeline Lucas, better known as Lucia (pronounced the Italian way, of course). Along with her husband Philip (‘Peppino’) and her loyal ‘gentleman-in-waiting’ Georgie Pillson, Lucia has put herself at the heart of Riseholme society and is the self-proclaimed queen – so imagine her frustration when her rival, Daisy Quantock, begins to pose a threat to her crown. When Mrs Quantock produces an Indian Guru and offers his services as yoga teacher to the villagers, the jealous Lucia manages to ‘steal’ him for herself, so when Daisy moves on to a new fad she vows not to make the same mistake again…

Lucia is such an unpleasant character! From her irritating habit of speaking baby talk with Georgie and her insistence on dropping Italian phrases into conversation, despite only knowing a few words of the language, to the way she pushes others aside to make herself the centre of attention, there is really not much to like about her at all. And yet that didn’t really matter; as this is a satire and Lucia, and the others, are clearly supposed to be comedy characters, the more unlikeable the better!

This is the first in Benson’s six-novel Mapp and Lucia series and also the first one I’ve read. They had never really appealed to me before, although I know a lot of people love them, so I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. I don’t feel an immediate compulsion to pick up the next one, but I’m sure I will at some point and am looking forward to meeting Miss Mapp.

~

Usually I’m able to post a list of other books I’ve reviewed on my blog from the relevant club year, but for 1920 I can find only one:

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

It’s a great book and one I would highly recommend.

The House by the Sea by Louise Douglas

I’m never quite sure how to describe Louise Douglas’ books. Set in either the present day or recent past, they are not exactly mysteries or crime novels, but more than just romances, and although they do have ghostly or gothic elements, they are grounded in the reality of family drama and personal tragedy. Probably romantic suspense is the best term for them, I think. Having enjoyed three of them – The Secrets Between Us, In Her Shadow and Your Beautiful Lies – I was hoping that I would also enjoy her new one, The House by the Sea.

Our narrator, Edie, has spent the last ten years blaming her former mother-in-law, Anna DeLuca, for the death of her little boy, Daniel, and the breakdown of her marriage that followed. When she hears that Anna has died she feels a sense of relief, but she is less pleased to learn that Anna has left her Sicilian villa to Edie and her ex-husband, Joe. Convinced that this is just an attempt to reunite her with Joe, Edie is angry with Anna for continuing to meddle in her life even from beyond the grave, so she heads for Sicily determined to find a buyer for the villa and return home again as quickly as possible.

On her arrival in Sicily, Edie has to endure an awkward meeting with Joe, who has also come to inspect his inheritance and look for a buyer. However, Edie soon finds herself falling in love with the crumbling old villa and is intrigued by the many secrets it seems to be hiding. Where is the valuable painting of the Madonna del Mare, missing from its place on the wall? Who are the two girls in Anna’s childhood photographs and why does one of them have her face scratched out? And what is the reason for all the bad luck Edie and Joe begin to experience? Is someone trying to drive them away from Sicily before they can uncover the truth?

Louise Douglas writes beautifully; she is one of those authors with a real talent for capturing the mood and atmosphere of a place, whether that place is the Yorkshire Moors (Your Beautiful Lies), the Cornish coast (In Her Shadow) or a rural village in Somerset (The Secrets Between Us). The House by the Sea is the first of her books that I’ve read which is set outside England and I loved the vivid descriptions of Sicily, beginning with Edie’s first sight of the island – probably the most travelling I’ll do this year!

The aircraft tipped to begin its descent and through the porthole I watched the southern side of the island of Sicily emerge from the glare of the sun. Beyond the breaching wing lay a hazy, mountainous land surrounded by turquoise water. Wispy clouds bunched around the summit of Etna, the shadow of a forest creeping up her flank. I saw the sprawl of cities, the pencil line of motorways, the meandering loops of a river and the brilliant blue rectangle of a reservoir. My journey was almost over and Joe was somewhere down there, waiting for me.

The mystery element of the novel is not very strong, to be honest. I found it easy to guess who was behind the strange occurrences at the villa – although I didn’t know exactly why and had to wait until the end of the book for everything to be explained. But what I did enjoy was watching Edie’s development as a character as, under the warm Sicilian sun, she begins to come to terms with what happened all those years ago and slowly finds the strength to move on. Her relationship with Joe and the way it changes over the course of the novel is well written and feels believable, but again, it was too easy to predict what was going to happen!

This is not one of my favourites by Louise Douglas, but it did remind me of how much I enjoyed reading her books a few years ago. I seem to have missed her last book, The Secret by the Lake, which was published in 2015, so I will have to catch up with that one soon.

Thanks to Boldwood Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Before I start to talk about Ann Patchett’s wonderful novel The Dutch House, just a quick note to say that, like many of you, I am feeling very worried and stressed about the current situation in the world. I’m still reading but struggling to find the enthusiasm for writing blog posts at the moment. I do have a stock of reviews already written which I will schedule in over the next few weeks, but if I’m slow to reply to comments or to comment on your blogs in return, I’m not ignoring you – just finding it hard to concentrate and get motivated.

Anyway, back to The Dutch House…I’ve been aware of Ann Patchett’s books for years without ever thinking that I might enjoy them, but this one sounded appealing to me so I thought I would give it a try. I’m glad I did because I loved it – it just shows how wrong you can be about an author!

The Dutch House is the story of brother and sister Danny and Maeve Conroy, and their obsession with the house in Philadelphia in which they grew up. It’s no ordinary house; named for the nationality of the people who built it in the 1920s, the Van Hoebeeks, the Dutch House is an architectural wonder with ornate floors and ceilings and luxurious furnishings. When Cyril Conroy purchases it in the 1940s, he intends it to be a wonderful surprise for his family. However, his wife, Elna, comes to hate the house and everything it represents. For her, it is symbolic of all the inequality in the world – how can it be fair for some people to have so much and others so little? She begins to spend increasingly longer periods of time away from the house, until one day she leaves and doesn’t come back.

Maeve and Danny are devastated by their mother’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, but things quickly become worse when Cyril marries again and his new wife, Andrea, arrives at the Dutch House with her two young daughters. Andrea makes it clear that she has no time for her stepchildren and doesn’t want them in her life so, when Cyril dies a few years later, she throws them out of the Dutch House and leaves them to make their own way in the world.

For the rest of their lives, Danny and Maeve will struggle to move on and let go of the past. They will sit outside the Dutch House, looking through the gates and wondering who lives there now. They will let the events of their childhood influence the career paths they follow and put strain on their future relationships. And they will never forget that Andrea is to blame for all of this.

You could describe this as a book about a house, but I think of it more as a book about people and the connections between them…in particular, the relationship between a brother and a sister. When they find themselves cast out and alone in the world, Danny and Maeve have no one else they can rely on but each other; Maeve, who is seven years older, takes on the role of mother, overseeing Danny’s education and making sacrifices for him, despite struggling with her own health problems. The bond between them is deep and unbreakable and although there are times when it seems to restrict them from doing things they really want to do and times when it gets in the way of their other relationships, I still found it very moving.

The novel is narrated entirely by Danny and as he is only a small child when his mother leaves and still just a teenager when he is forced out of the Dutch House, there’s a sense that some of the information he is giving us may be slightly unreliable. It is only later in life, as he sits in the car outside the house reminiscing with Maeve, that certain things become clear to him and start to make more sense. As the story progresses towards its end the full picture emerges and we begin to wonder ‘what if’? What if, instead of always staying in the car, Danny and Maeve had gone and knocked on the door of the Dutch House one day? What if they had tried to contact Andrea and speak to her as adults – could they have cleared the air and moved on with their lives? What if they had made more effort to find their mother and had asked her why she walked out on them as children? They will never know the answers to these questions, but I’m sure we all have similar thoughts about our own lives – things we could have done differently or not done at all.

I loved this book and will now have to read Ann Patchett’s earlier books, which I had dismissed as not for me. Any recommendations?

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies is a Canadian author best known for his four trilogies – the Salterton Trilogy, the Deptford Trilogy, the Cornish Trilogy and the unfinished Toronto Trilogy. As someone completely new to Davies’ work it was hard to know where to start, but as it didn’t seem necessary to read these trilogies in any particular order, I decided to begin with the one that sounded most appealing to me, the Deptford Trilogy, of which Fifth Business is the first book. I think it was a good choice! I actually started to read it last August for a reading week hosted by Lory, but got distracted during a house move and didn’t go back to it until just after New Year, when I was able to give it the attention it deserved.

Fifth Business is narrated by Dunstable (later renamed Dunstan) Ramsay in the form of a long letter written to the headmaster of the school from which he is retiring, having taught there for many years. In the letter, he looks back on his life, beginning in 1908 when, as a boy growing up in the small Canadian town of Deptford, an incident occurs that will shape his future: Percy Boyd Staunton, his friend and rival, throws a snowball containing a stone; Dunstan – the intended target – jumps aside; and instead the snowball hits a pregnant woman, who goes into premature labour with the shock. This incident means nothing to Percy, but it will haunt Dunstan for the rest of his life.

Many of the things that happen to Dunstan from this point on – the sort of man he becomes, the interests he develops, the career path he follows and the relationships he forms – could be traced back to the day of the snowball. His life-long obsession with the study of saints, for example, comes about because of his feelings of guilt and responsibility towards the pregnant woman, Mrs Dempster, and her son, Paul, the baby born prematurely. He convinces himself that she is a saint who has performed miracles, including saving his life when he is wounded at Passchendaele during the First World War. Illusions, deceptions and the unexplained are important themes running throughout the book, not just in the form of miracles but also magic tricks, conjuring and fortune telling.

I think this is the sort of book that probably needs to be read more than once to be able to fully appreciate all the different layers and ideas it contains. I’m not sure I enjoyed the book enough to want to read it again (although I did like it very much), but I’m certainly interested in reading the other two parts of the trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders.

Finally, if you are wondering about the title of the novel, it describes the role Dunstable/Dunstan Ramsay plays throughout his life and throughout the story:

“And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out.”

The Sun Sister by Lucinda Riley

This is the sixth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series inspired by the mythology of the star cluster known as the Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Each novel tells the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious billionaire known as Pa Salt who dies at the beginning of the series, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their biological parents.

The girls all grew up together at Atlantis, Pa Salt’s estate by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but they were born in different countries and came from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but for some reason which hasn’t yet been revealed, only six girls were actually brought home to Atlantis by Pa Salt.

In the previous books in the series, we have heard Maia’s story, Ally’s, Star’s, CeCe’s and Tiggy’s. This latest novel, The Sun Sister, tells the story of Electra, and I will admit that I was not particularly looking forward to this one. Whenever Electra briefly appeared in one of the other sisters’ books, she came across as a very unattractive personality and I wasn’t really relishing the thought of following her throughout an entire novel. On the other hand, I had initially felt the same about CeCe and ended up liking her once I had read The Pearl Sister, so I hoped the same would happen here.

At the beginning of The Sun Sister, which opens in 2008, shortly after Pa Salt’s death, Electra is living in New York City, where she has built a successful career for herself as a model. Yet despite her beauty, fame and wealth, we quickly discover that Electra is not a very happy young woman. For a while now, she has been relying on drugs and alcohol to get through the day and the loss of her adoptive father, whom she feels was disappointed in her, has left her struggling to cope. To make things worse, she is aware that all five of her older sisters have by now traced their own origins and come to terms with who they really are. Then, just as she is reaching her absolute lowest ebb, she is visited by Stella Jackson, the grandmother she didn’t know she had – and the story Stella tells her will literally help to save her life.

Stella’s story involves another of Electra’s ancestors – Cecily Huntley-Morgan, a young American woman who, in the 1930s, goes to stay with her godmother in Kenya after having her heart broken not once but twice. Living amongst the notorious Happy Valley set, by the shores of Lake Naivasha, Cecily falls in love with the landscape and the way of life. She ends up staying in Kenya for much longer than she had planned, until she meets a troubled Maasai girl and agrees to help her – a decision that will change the course of Cecily’s life once again.

The two storylines alternate with each other throughout the book, but each section is long enough that we can become fully immersed in one character’s story before moving on to the next. Of the two, Cecily’s was my favourite; in fact, it might even be my favourite of all the historical storylines in this series so far. I loved the descriptions of Kenya and the way some of the real incidents and people from the Happy Valley society were woven into the story. Although I didn’t agree with all of Cecily’s decisions (and I was disappointed in her treatment of a certain person in her life towards the end of the book), I did like her and sympathised with some of the situations she found herself in.

But I also enjoyed reading about Electra and despite my dislike of her at the beginning, I soon began to warm to her and to understand why she behaved the way she did. It was clear that Electra had always felt slightly out of place in her family, so it was good to see her bonding with her eldest sister, Maia, in this book. Now I hope she can resolve her differences with CeCe in the final book!

After not really looking forward to this book, it turned out to be one of the best in the series. Now I’m very curious about the seventh one, which is going to have to provide answers to all of the questions and mysteries raised in the previous six. I hope we don’t have to wait too long for it.