Rosanna Ley, aka Jan Henley, has been through several incarnations during her writing career – and this enjoyable slice of escapism is certainly attracting attention as the book steadily climbed the best-seller lists during the summer.
When Tess Angel receives a solicitor’s letter inviting her to claim her inheritance – the Villa Sirena, perched on a clifftop in Sicily – she is stunned. Her only link to the island is through her mother, Flavia, who left Sicily during World War II and cut all contact with her family. Initially resistant to Tess going back to her roots, Flavia realises the secrets from her past are about to be revealed and decides to try to explain actions. Meanwhile, Tess’ teenage daughter Ginny is stressed by college, by her blooming sexuality and filled with questions that she longs to ask her father, if only she knew where he was.
So this book has three protagonists – Flavia, Tess and Ginny. It’s a big ask to be able to pull off writing convincingly as a seventy-something and as a seventeen year old – and Ley manages it. Ginny’s chippy comments are both poignant and funny, while the story that Flavia gradually reveals, along with Sicilian recipes is both remarkable and believable. While her stay in Sicily allows Tess the space to finally decide what she wants from life, after struggling to raise Ginny as a single parent.
This book has the potential to be an almighty mess – balancing three separate stories spanning over half a century, with a backdrop straddling modern Britain and a remote Sicilian village certainly is harder to achieve than Ley makes it look. In addition, Ley has further challenged modern tastes by insisting on slowing the pace down, particularly during the Sicilian interludes. We are treated to lengthy descriptive passages and detailed instructions on how to make several classic Sicilian dishes – in effect a substantial section of this book is an homage to a slower, simpler pace of life. However, Ley is also at pains not to paint too cosy a picture of these tough, touchy people, who are quick to take offence and very slow to forgive – with sometimes catastrophic consequences.
While there is a love interest, this isn’t the engine that drives this book forward – it is the tension running through all three generations of strong-minded women in trying to find some kind of peace and happiness. Do they succeed? What is the mystery that has torn apart two families who had been friends for generations? And why is Flavia so determined never to return to the land of her birth? How can Ginny negotiate the demands of her friends, along with those of her boyfriend?
This isn’t the sort of book I generally read and enjoy – but I stayed up reading into the small hours, unwilling to put The Villa down as I was drawn into the story and wanted to know what happened next. And while the cover blurb repeatedly suggests it is an ideal summer read, I think it would be also be one to curl up with in the dead of winter, where those vivid descriptions of the baking Sicilian landscape may help to keep you warm…