In the summer of 1995, journalist Marlena de Blasi was offered an assignment: write a story about the interior regions of Sicily. Learning that several colleagues had already turned down the assignment, Marlena accepted anyway, and along with her Venetian husband, Fernando, began to plan an itinerary. Lining up interviews with professors, writers, chefs, and others, Marlena sets out on her journey with confidence. Soon, however, she discovers what her colleagues already knew - the people of Sicily will not deign to be interviewed. After two weeks of broken appointments, Marlena and her husband are ready to admit defeat. Looking for a nice hotel or other establishment to rest for a couple of days before returning home, Marlena is reluctantly directed to the Villa Donnafugata - literally, the house of fleeing women - and its owner, a woman named Tosca.
After several hours of traveling the Sicilian countryside, they arrive and find themselves at what appears to be a castle. For the first time on their trip, they are spoken to, made to feel welcome. The villa is home to a vast number of women - widows, all wearing black, busily going about their work. The beautiful, forbidding Tosca invites them for a meal, with the conditions of their visit to be discussed later. Marlena and Fernando don't know what to think about this strange, beautiful place but feel compelled to stay. After several days of observing the widows, roaming the grounds and watching the villa function, Marlena can't help but wonder about the circumstances of the establishment. Eventually, little by little, she coaxes the story from Tosca.
The villa is Tosca's inheritance, left to her by the prince her father sold her to at the age of nine. Raised alongside his daughters, Tosca proves herself to be smart and hardworking, and Prince Leo soon creates an intensive course of study especially for her. When, as a teenager, she finds herself falling in love with Leo, Tosca asks him to allow her to return to her village. Instead, knowing she will never be truly accepted by her people again, Leo enlists her help in the project that will become his obsession: bettering the lives of the villagers entrusted to his care. While they build a school, better homes, roads, and churches for the people, Leo and Tosca grow closer and eventually become lovers. When Leo's work on behalf of the peasants draws the ire of the local mafia, their lives are both in danger. Trying to protect Tosca, Leo confronts the mafia leaders himself, and his death forces Tosca to finally make a life of her own.
That Summer in Sicily: A Love Story is an amazing book, made more remarkable because it is a true story. Like a modern-day fairy tale, Tosca's rise from peasant child to pampered young girl to strong, forceful woman reads like fiction, but it all really happened. The author admits that she has taken some poetic license and changed the setting of parts of the story to protect the people involved, but this book proves the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Tosca is, initially, a difficult woman to sympathize with, but as her story unfolds, she reveals herself to be worthy of admiration. Her life has all the ingredients of a blockbuster movie - adventure, romance, intrigue, and sorrow - and the slow revelation of her secrets keeps the reader glued to the edge of their seat.
Marlena de Blasi is a beautiful writer, able to immerse the reader in the sights and sounds of the world she experiences. Her descriptions of the villa, the food and drink, the flowers and people surrounding her, make the reader feel as though they are traveling through Sicily with her. Though travel writing is her expertise, she recounts the love story of Tosca and Leo beautifully, never letting the pace of the narrative falter. That Summer in Sicily: A Love Story is a mesmerizing interlude, perfect to read on a cold, winter night. It is highly recommended and will appeal to a wide variety of readers.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Elizabeth Schulenberg, 2009