The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This novel by Italian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, published posthumously in 1958, is one I had been interested in reading for a few years, having seen lots of very positive reviews, but it was including it on my 20 Books of Summer list that pushed me into picking it up towards the end of June. I have to confess, when I first started reading it I wasn’t at all sure whether I was going to like it, but I think that was mainly because I had no understanding of the historical context. Google came to the rescue and after I’d familiarised myself with the background to the novel I found it much easier to follow what was happening.

The Leopard is set in 19th century Sicily during the Risorgimento (the movement for the unification of Italy). We explore this period of Italian history through the eyes of a Sicilian nobleman, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, who is forced to watch as the world around him changes beyond his control. Beginning in 1860, the year Garibaldi lands on the coast of Sicily, we see the gradual decline of the Prince’s family and the nobility as a whole.

While Don Fabrizio regrets the loss of values he once held dear and hopes that somehow, once Italy has been united, the class system will be able to survive, his nephew Tancredi has a very different outlook, explaining that “everything needs to change, so that everything can stay the same”. The relationship which develops between Tancredi and the beautiful Angelica, daughter of a wealthy businessman, is only possible because of the breakdown in the class structure; characters like Angelica represent the future, whereas those like Don Fabrizio are becoming part of history.

Although the novel is set in the past – and does immerse the reader in another time and place, with some elegant and vivid descriptive writing – the author occasionally reminds us that he is viewing events from a point many years in the future. For example, he lets us know that the palace he is describing with painted gods on the ceiling will be destroyed by a bomb in 1943. It all adds to the poignancy and to the atmosphere of decay and decline.

If you’re wondering about the title, it refers to the symbol of the Salina dynasty and, I think, the power and grace of the aristocracy. As the Prince himself muses, “We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas…” The whole novel is rich in symbolism: a stone leopard above the door has the legs broken off in a sign of things to come, while the initals engraved on Don Fabrizio’s wine glass are fading away and even the fate of his dog Bendico is another reminder that everything must come to an end.

The Leopard is a beautifully written book and although it’s surprisingly short, there’s so much packed into its pages I think a re-read would be necessary to be able to fully appreciate it. After an uncertain start, I was very impressed with this book and can see why it is considered a classic Italian novel.

This is Book 4/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

Beatrice and Benedick “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” These words are spoken by Beatrice near the beginning of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, when she is reunited with Benedick, a man whom it is hinted she had been romantically involved with in the past. Shakespeare never gives us any details of Beatrice and Benedick’s history together and in this new novel, Marina Fiorato imagines how they may have met, what could have led to their separation and what brought them together again.

As the novel begins in the summer of 1588, Beatrice, the daughter of Prince Escalus of Verona, is visiting Messina in Sicily, staying at the home of her uncle Leonato, the Governor of Messina. Sicily is under Spanish rule and Leonato is preparing to welcome a party of Spaniards to the island, including the Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, who is accompanied by his two young Italian friends, Claudio and Benedick. Claudio instantly falls in love with Leonato’s beautiful daughter, Hero, while Beatrice and Benedick are also attracted to each other – but are unable to admit it, preferring to trade insults instead. Just as they begin to acknowledge their love for each other, the two are torn apart with Beatrice heading home to Verona and Benedick joining Don Pedro and Claudio at sea as the Spanish Armada sets out to invade England. Eventually they will all meet again in Messina, setting the scene for the events of Much Ado About Nothing

Well, this book was a surprise! I had expected a light, gentle romantic comedy, but what I got was an entertaining and often quite dark historical adventure novel filled with duels, pageants and puppet shows, sea voyages, mutinies and treasure troves. Like a play, the novel is divided into Acts and Scenes, each Scene narrated by either Beatrice or Benedick. The voices of the two narrators were very similar and I thought more effort could have been made to make them more distinctive, but otherwise I liked the way the novel was structured. I wondered whether Fiorato would be able to pull off the wars of words between Beatrice and Benedick, but I think she did this very well – although Benedick doesn’t seem as quick-witted as Beatrice and usually comes off worst in their encounters.

I know there are some readers who are not interested in prequels, sequels or rewritings of any kind (and actually, I usually am one of those readers) but I enjoyed this one and thought it was very cleverly done, with Shakespeare’s characters and storylines woven perfectly into the history of the period. There are also some elements and characters from other plays, most notably Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Fiorato even manages to incorporate Shakespeare himself into the novel – if you’re not already aware of the theories connecting Shakespeare with Sicily I’ll leave you to find out for yourself!

You don’t really need to be familiar with Much Ado About Nothing as this book does work as a straightforward historical fiction novel, but you will get more out of it if you do read (or watch) the play either before you start or after you finish. As for the historical aspects of the novel, it was interesting to learn about Spanish-ruled Sicily and the fate of the Moors who lived there. I also loved all the beautiful descriptions of both Messina and Verona.

Having enjoyed Beatrice and Benedick so much more than I’d expected to, are there any other Shakespeare-inspired novels you would recommend?

The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas

Suffering from the trauma of a stillborn baby and the end of her relationship with her boyfriend, Sarah agrees to accompany her sister and brother-in-law to Sicily for a holiday. Here she meets Alexander and his six-year-old son, Jamie, who are having problems of their own: Alexander’s wife, Genevieve, has left him and disappeared without trace. When Alex offers Sarah a job as housekeeper at his home in England, she agrees. Despite her family’s concerns, Sarah thinks it’s the right decision: she’s attracted to Alex, adores his little boy, and is desperate to make a fresh start and move on with her life.

But after joining Alex and Jamie at Avalon, their home in the village of Burrington Stoke in Somerset, Sarah begins to wonder exactly what happened to Genevieve. The missing woman’s family are convinced Alex knows more about the disappearance than he’s admitting to, but Sarah knows that can’t be true…or can it?

The Secrets Between Us was my final choice for the Transworld Book Group. Louise Douglas is not an author I’ve ever read before, so I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but I was immediately drawn to it when I saw that it had been compared to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, one of my favourite books. And there are definitely some similarities. Genevieve, like Rebecca, is described as beautiful, popular, talented and loved by everyone who knew her – and although she’s not there physically, she’s still a very strong presence and always at the heart of the story. The two books also share a gothic atmosphere and a sense of uneasiness and foreboding.

But this is also an excellent book in its own right. The author expertly keeps us guessing right to the end by adding some unexpected plot twists and ensuring that we can never be quite certain whether Alexander can be trusted or not. It’s also possible that Sarah, as the narrator, may not always be completely reliable. Some very strange and spooky things happen at Avalon and we are made to wonder whether they have supernatural causes or whether Sarah’s emotional state is making her see things that aren’t really there.

I did find it hard to believe that Sarah would agree to move in with a man she’d only met on a couple of brief occasions in Sicily, but at least this meant we were thrown into the action almost immediately, with only a short build-up. And Sarah is a narrator who is easy to like and to have sympathy for. I could really feel her fear and confusion as more and more facts about Genevieve were revealed, and her sense of growing isolation as the people of Burrington Stoke turned against her, believing that she and Alexander were trying to cover up the truth about Genevieve’s disappearance.

The Secrets Between Us is an excellent psychological thriller, with just the right amount of tension and suspense. Although Louise Douglas’ previous novels sound very different to this one, I really liked her writing and would be happy to try her other books at some point too.

I received a copy of this book from Transworld for review.

Classics Circuit: A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

A Sicilian Romance is a gothic novel first published more than two hundred years ago, in 1790. Set in the late sixteenth century, it’s the story of two sisters, Julia and Emilia, the daughters of the fifth marquis of Mazzini. After the death of the girls’ mother, the marquis marries again and as his second wife prefers to spend her time in Naples, he leaves his daughters living alone in his ancient castle in Sicily with only the servants for company. When their father returns to the island and informs Julia that he has arranged a marriage for her, she rebels against his choice of husband, putting her life in danger. Meanwhile several of the castle’s inhabitants report hearing strange noises and seeing mysterious lights shining in an abandoned part of the building. Is the castle haunted?

This is not the first Ann Radcliffe novel I’ve read; I had previously enjoyed both The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, so when I saw that the theme of the latest Classics Circuit tour was the early gothic novel, I decided to try another Radcliffe book. This one was shorter and less satisfying than the other two I’ve read, but in a lot of ways it was very similar. All of her books are perfect examples of gothic literature and have everything you would expect from a gothic novel: An old castle with crumbling staircases and dark, dusty chambers, locked doors, family secrets, lonely monasteries, bandits, shipwrecks, dungeons and underground tunnels, thunder and lightning, and almost anything else you can think of.

I’ve found that reading early gothic novels requires a different approach to normal. You need to be prepared for lots of melodrama and it’s necessary to completely suspend disbelief because in reality nobody would ever find themselves in the situations Radcliffe’s characters find themselves in. I hope not anyway! The characters also tend not to be as well developed as you would expect in a more modern novel and are usually portrayed as either completely good or completely evil. A Sicilian Romance features two beautiful heroines, a brave, handsome nobleman, and a wicked stepmother, among other stereotypes. The storyline is predictable and relies heavily on coincidences, last-minute escapes and other typical plot devices found in this type of book. It’s almost impossible to take these books seriously, but if you can accept them for what they are, they can be fun to read.

I should also mention that there are some beautifully written descriptions of the Sicilian scenery (although there’s not as much descriptive writing as in The Mysteries of Udolpho, which made this book easier to read and much faster-paced). I enjoyed this book but I think The Italian is still my favourite Radcliffe novel.

Visit the Classics Circuit blog to discover more early gothic literature.