Reviewed by Emma Crowley
1974 and Elena Damiani lives a gilded life. Born to wealth and a noted beauty, no door is closed to her, no man can resist her. At twenty-six, she is already onto her third husband when she meets her love match. But he is the one man she can never have, and all the beauty and money in the world can't change it.
2017 and Francesca Hackett is living la dolce vita in Rome, leading tourist groups around the Eternal City and forgetting the ghosts she left behind in London. When she finds a stolen designer handbag in her dustbin and returns it, she is brought into the orbit of her grand neighbour who lives across the piazza - famed socialite Viscontessa Elena dei Damiani Pignatelli della Mirandola. Though the purse is stolen, Elena greets the return of the bag with exultation for it contains an unopened letter written by her husband on his deathbed, twelve years earlier.
Mutually intrigued by each other, the two women agree to collaborate on a project, with Cesca interviewing Elena for her memoirs. As summer unfurls, Elena tells her sensational stories, leaving Cesca in her thrall. But when a priceless diamond ring found in an ancient tunnel below the city streets is ascribed to Elena, Cesca begins to suspect a shocking secret at the heart of Elena's life.
It really is the sign of an excellent author when they can transport you to a city or country that you have never visited before but make you feel like you are right there with the characters experiencing all the sights and sounds and the history it has to offer. Karen Swan is one such author for me and with her new novel The Rome Affair I was completely engulfed in the wonderful story that awaited me between the pages of such a stunning, yet simple cover that really evokes the mood of the book. Lately, Karen has seemed to be writing two books a year, one for the summer market and another at Christmas. For some reason I always manage to read the summer books but some of the Christmas ones remain on my TBR pile but if they are anywhere near as good as The Rome Affair I am in for a real treat.
The Rome Affair is long in terms of length, at well over 400 pages, but honestly I didn't notice the chapters flying by so quickly as so engrossed did I become in the story. The author has a real knack for making the characters come alive on the pages and having you believe you have know them for years. What's more is that this story has a dual time line, one of my favourite elements in a book that I feel always works well and adds that little extra something to a story, that of Cesca in modern day Rome where she works as a tour guide. In the past we read of Elena from the time she spent growing up in America in one of the wealthiest families to the modern day as she lives out her old age in a place with a thousand rooms in Rome. The whole story was fascinating from beginning to end and it proved to be one of those books that you really don't want to finish. As soon as you read the last page you will want to turn to the first chapter and begin all over again and that's very rare that happens for me given all the books I have waiting to be read.
Cesca has spent the last seven months working in the eternal city of Rome leading tourists through the streets extolling the beauty of the city and informing people of its ancient history which is still clear for all to see. This job really couldn't be more different from her former job in England working as a barrister in the law courts. One instantly wonders how could someone have left such a high powered, good paying job for such a contrasting life? Clearly something major had happened to Cesca but now it seems she is satisfied with her life and although at times she can struggle money wise and has to budget carefully she is happy and content and soaks up all the city has to offer. This was a chance for her to embrace new opportunities and start afresh.
I never got the sense Cesca was running scared from her old life but an event had led her needing a big change. I'm glad the reason for Cesca leaving England wasn't the dominant theme of the book. Instead she briefly alludes to it in one or two sentences every now and again and that was enough for me. I was more concerned with the uncovering of Elena's story. When Cesca discovers a handbag dumped in the communal rubbish bin of the quiet palazzo on which she lives, her interest is aroused. She finds a letter inside unopened and through one thing and another she arrives at the doors of the 1000 room palace on the palazzo. Little does Cesca know this discovery will change her life. She will become close to a woman with a rich and detailed life who now feels it is the time to share it with everybody and Cesca may just be the person to help her with this.
The Rome Affair was so rich in detail and vivid in its descriptions that the reader can easily create their own picture of the various settings in their head. The palace that Principessa Viscontessa Elena lives in just seemed out of this world and full of history, secrets and memories. It was sad she was now living there on her own with just some servants for company. But the reader can sense she has lived a colourful life but yet has placed firm barriers up but now is the time they have to come down. A publisher wishes her to write her life story to uncover the woman behind the enigma and before Cesca realises it she has volunteered her services. The palace has secrets waiting to be revealed and Cesca has the guts and determination to find out just what Elena would rather was kept secret. I can't say the two women bonded especially well throughout the story as I don't think they were very fully truthful with each other. Cesca was there to do a job and I think she wanted to become friends with Elena but Elena as we discover had been through so much, had been so cruelly hurt and things never seemed to go her way that she refused to fully open up and reveal her true self. She wanted to maintain that aloofness, never letting her guard down and to portray a glamorous lifestyle. But between all that glitter and gold and false smiles there was a lot more going on than at first meets the eye.
The earlier half of the book ,as well as focusing on the present day, takes us back to Elena's earlier life growing up in America as the daughter of a hugely successful business man. Money was always in plentiful supply and she was given whatever she wanted. As we move forward with Elena we read of her marriages and their failures. She has a challenging life and I could see why she she came across as bitter and hurt in the present. Everything that occurred to her had such a deep impact on how she lived now and the past was forever haunting her. It was compelling to read as to how she ended up in Rome married to her third husband Prince Gianvito Damiani and for me this was the most interesting part of her story.
As I was reading I had felt the earlier parts of her life had been written about in too much detail and I couldn't see how they had much relevance to how she came to be in Italy. But the more the layers were peeled back I understood the earlier sections had been necessary as it gave the reader a deeper insight into the person Elena actually was. I did find it strange that there seemed to be discrepancies in some parts of the story but again they were essential to the overall story. In the present day a sink hole appearing in the grounds of the palace provided another dimension to the story and it's from this point on I felt everything really picked up a gear. It allowed for the introduction of the urban speleologist Nico Cantarelli as he is brought in to investigate the site and what he discovers turns things on it's head.
I loved how Cesca and Nico bounced off each other and always had sharp one liners flowing back and forth between them. There was a chemistry between the pair but neither were willing to give into it given their first initial encounter. As they work together, delving deeper into the secrets of the sink hole and into Elena's life the story took on so many twists and turns that at times I found it possible to keep track of everything. Cesca was ruthless and determined to find the exact story and if she was writing a biography she wanted the truth and she wouldn't rest until she discovered what Elena was hiding. When everything came to a head I must admit I did become confused and had to reread the pages several times just to make sure I had everything correct. It was a bitter sweet yet apt reveal yet given how much had gone into the setting up of everything it felt slightly rushed for me and that's what made me confused. I would be interested to see did other readers feel the same about the reveal.
All in all this was another stunning read with an epic love story at its centre from Karen Swan that should be on everyone's holiday reading list this summer. It had a brilliant yet deceptive storyline with rising tension and crafty twists and characters you fall in and out of love with. I was taken on a real journey with Cesca and Elena and didn't want it to end. The Rome Affair should be read in as few sittings as possible preferably in the sun with a glass of something nice to hand. This one comes highly recommended.
Many thanks to Pan MacMillan for my copy of The Rome Affair to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.