Monday, 1 August 2016

Food & Drink Month Review: The Olive Branch by Jo Thomas

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

You can buy almost anything online these days. For Ruthie Collins, it was an Italian farmhouse.

Yet as she battles with a territorial goat and torrential rain just to get through the door of her new Italian home, the words of Ed, her ex, are ringing in her ears. She is daft, impetuous and irresponsible.

But Ruthie is determined to turn things around and live the dream.

First, though, she must win over her fiery neighbour, Marco Bellanouvo, and his family... Then there's the small matter of running an olive farm. As the seasons change and new roots are put down, olives and romance might just flourish in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun.

Amazon links: Kindle or Paperback

Finally I have gotten around to reading the wonderful, inspiring The Olive Branch by Jo Thomas as part of Sharon’s Food and Drink month on the blog. I’ve read Jo’s debut novel The Oyster Catcher and like so many others thoroughly enjoyed it as it was the perfect escapism read with a fantastic setting and great cast of characters. So where does the author take us to in her second book, well the answer is glorious Italy as Ruthie Collins embarks on a journey very different from the life she has lived up to now. Recently single and taking the bull by the horns Ruthie has bought an Italian farmhouse surrounded by lush olive groves she hasn’t the first clue about. 

Transported to the warm landscape of the Italian countryside, Ruthie has to grow up and put the past firmly behind her in order to embrace the future and make a go of the farm no matter what obstacles and opposition may be thrown in her path. The question that runs through Ruthie’s mind is does she want to stay on when confronted with hostility at times? Can romance, friendship and sheer hard work and guts help in making Ruthie’s life more positive and happy? This fabulous book was a sheer delight to read from start to finish. Jo Thomas has such warmth to her writing with such well rounded characters who you only wish the best outcome for. I’ve recently read endless books set in Cornwall featuring cafes etc and although I enjoyed the books at the time I needed a break from this setting and themes and what better place to go than Italy as we journey with Ruthie on her voyage of self discovery.

After a night out with friend Morag, Ruthie with a Prosecco fuelled click of a button on eBay of all places is now the proud owner of a farmhouse with olive groves deep in the Italian countryside. Friends and family think she is off her rocker and should never have gone through with the purchase but Ruthie is one determined lady and has had enough. She hasn’t many options as she has split from partner Ed and her only choice is to go and sleep on her mother’s couch who lives with not the most mannerly of boyfriends. ‘I was coming up to my thirtieth birthday and I was going back to live with my mother. And Colin in his vest. And I knew I had to do something, I had to strike out on my own. So I signed’. So Ruthie has made the jump and she must go through with it. She finds herself arriving late at night in the pouring rain to be confronted by an obstinate goat that seems to wander about the place but finally she is in her new house. It’s rundown and needs work but Ruthie is not intimidated and can see its potential and what better place to heal a broken heart and take the next step in your life journey than in the warm, glorious Italian countryside. 

Throughout the book Jo Thomas nails the descriptions of the farm, olive grove and even the village Ruthie goes to to do her shopping and meet new friends. I had such a vivid, distinct picture in my head of every setting and event and it was obvious Jo has a deep love of Italy and thoroughly researched everything from the mouth watering food right down to the whole process involved in harvesting the olives. I really felt like I was there witnessing Ruthie transform and change with the seasons on the farm and only wanted a positive outcome for all the characters involved.

Life was never going to be easy for Ruthie once she made what some may view as being an impetuous and daft decision but when she meets her neighbours all becomes clear. The Bellanuovo family have recently lost their grandfather and are shocked and disgusted to discover he sold the farm and their inheritance out from under them and now it’s poor Ruthie who has to take the brunt of their anger. Marco, grandson of Giovanni, is the one alongside his mother Anna Maria who displays the most resentment at losing the house and olive groves which had been in their family for generations but when the reasons are explained surely it was nothing to do with Ruthie and she was just an innocent bystander? I loved how Ruthie never took no for an answer Marco wanted the farm back in his family’s hands and although not vicious towards Ruthie initially he wanted nothing to do with her and wanted her to fend for herself but bit by bit his armour starts to wear down and a softer side starts to emerge and I found myself just like Ruthie becoming more and more enamoured with him. If I had been Ruthie I think I would have just turned tail and ran away and not dealt with anything but I suppose there was nothing really for her to run back to and she wanted to prove that she could achieve something in her life and not have friends and family say I told you so. With the help of local schoolteacher and cafĂ© owner Lou Ruthie slowly starts to assimilate into the Italian way of life and the old Ruthie starts to emerge. Lou offered great advice to Ruthie which everyone should really take on board’ Sometimes in life you just have to take a chance’.

The book could easily have become repetitive as the author describes Ruthie's days either in the village or outside clearing the gardens and renovating the house but this didn't happen at all. Instead it was just glorious to further immerse yourself in the story as Marco comes more to the forefront. I loved the way he resented a challenge to Ruthie which gave her an easy out clause as it was clearly weighing significantly on her mind that she had either got herself in too deep or her conscience was starting to niggle at her that maybe the family should be allowed have their farm back. Marco seemed cold and aloof at the beginning and he didn't do much to make Ruthie feel like she could belong in the community but deep down there was someone good with a real heart waiting to emerge and I felt he was the one who challenged Ruthie the most and gave her the push she needed. He learned to put his own personal issues aside as Ruthie had such a personality that one couldn't help  but be swayed by her in a positive way.

I absolutely adored The Olive Branch and yes the title may have been a metaphor but it was used to perfection closer to the ending of the book. I had come to this with high expectations because I had loved Jo's first book and they were all fulfilled but also I had read several books that were really only average and this book gave me the boost I needed and reaffirmed why I love reading so much. Jo Thomas took me away to another time and place and gave her readers hope that it's OK to take a chance on the unexpected despite what others may think. Perseverance and dogged determination which Ruthie had in abundance went a long way and it was lovely to see her doubts and sense of failure vanishing as the novel progressed. 

I relished every moment of this story and really didn't want it to end, a fantastic honest storyline coupled with stunning descriptions made for a brilliant read. I had seen a meme on Facebook showing a picture of a girl captioned with this 'When you finish a book and realise you live in the real world and not the books world' and that so was me when I finished The Olive Branch. If you haven't read anything by Jo make sure you do you will not be disappointed in the slightest. Late Summer in the Vineyard will be the third book published by Jo and I really can't wait to get my hands on it France and wine feature this time - what a great combination.

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