No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, October 31, 2016

2016/56: The Villa in Italy -- Elizabeth Edmondson

It was odd how English people had reverted to their old habits of reserve and suspicion after the war. Conversations with strangers at bus stops and on trains, being invited in for a cup of tea by neighbours you had never spoken to before, the very unEnglish sense of camaraderie -- all of that had vanished. While queues and saving string and old envelopes had stayed.[loc. 698]

The mid-Fifties: long enough after the Second World War for wartime tragedies to lose their bite, and for a semblance of normality to return, but not long enough to heal every wound. Four people are summoned to the Villa Dante in Italy for the reading of Beatrice Malaspina's will. None of them knew Beatrice Malaspina: none of them have very much to lose. So five travellers -- Delia's best friend Jessica accompanies her -- make their way across post-war Europe to the beautiful, sunny Italian coast.

They are four very different people. Marjorie was a successful author, but hasn't written for years. She hears voices, possibly as a result of an accident. Lucius, an American, is a former officer, haunted by a wartime killing. Delia is an opera singer who hates singing tragedy, and whose true love Theo is married to her sister. (Her friend Jessica is Theo's sister.) And George is a nuclear physicist who worked at Los Alamos.

Beatrice Malaspina, it turns out, had a connection to each of these people, though they didn't know it. And each of them is, in turn, connected to the others. The Villa Dante is full of surprises and clues (apparently there's a codicil to the will, concealed somewhere on the premises) and as the guests get to know one another, they also come to understand themselves -- and their roles in Beatrice Malaspina's posthumous production -- rather better.

This is a delightful novel. Elizabeth Edmondson -- who also wrote as Elizabeth Pewsey and Elizabeth Aston -- has the gift of peppering her stories with well-paced, and well-placed, scraps of information. There is never too little information, and very seldom too much (though in The Villa in Italy, the unexpected arrival of one character's father does presage a certain amount of expository dialogue).

I think what I liked about this novel is the way that the author writes about people, and their interactions. Her characters are all well-rounded, and mostly unhappy at the beginning of the novel, and mostly happy at the end: and they evolve through the course of the novel, and through their interactions with and acceptance of one another. Also, there is a canonically queer character: and those 'happy endings' are not simple romantic HEA.

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