Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Sandy is in her fifties, and at a crossroads in her life: she's a teacher and respected by her pupils, but she feels she is being sidelined in favour of younger colleagues. So when her mother dies, leaving her a sealed envelope addressed to an unknown woman living in Naples, Sandy decides to head to Italy to resolve the mystery by delivering the letter herself.
She books herself on to a small sightseeing trip from Rome to Naples and the Amalfi Coast, hoping to meet some like-minded people along the way. Who is the mysterious woman she is searching for? And will Sandy find friendship, or even love, along the way...?
Many thanks to Orion publishers via NetGalley for my copy of An Italian Summer to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
An Italian Summer by Fanny Blake opens with a very intriguing line that set the tone for this book. As Sandy watches over her mother Miriam in her final days and hours, she makes a startling discovery – a letter addressed to an Anna Vigileri in Naples is in her mother's desk drawer waiting to be posted. Sandy cannot ask all the questions that flit through her mind upon seeing this letter as her mother is too weak. Apart from that, the relationship between the pair has always been strained and they never shared an extremely close mother daughter bond.
Miriam had always pushed Sandy away, always clamming up and never revealing anything about her family or her past. Some of Miriam's last words were – find her. Sandy interprets that her mother wanted her to find the Anna as mentioned in the letter. In accepting this quest of sorts little does Sandy realise that she will be taken on an experience which will see her face her own fears, uncertainties and difficulties. For she too has struggled in life and she knows deep down that now is the time to do something that will test her that will help her begin to move on from the death of her husband Matthew unexpectedly two years ago.
Since Matthew's death Sandy has felt adrift and unsure of what direction her life will now take. She loves her job as a teacher and is extremely hopeful that she will win promotion to year head but there is stiff competition. Pushing her professional worries aside Sandy takes the plunge and books a two week trip to Italy, a guided tour of Rome and Naples. Hoping to kill two birds with one stone she takes the letter with her in the hopes of finding the Anna of the letter still alive. Initially I thought the book would focus solely on a search for Anna. Then as we begin the holiday in Italy it became apparent that the tour would become the dominant focus with the finding of Anna taking more of a back seat until towards the end. I soon quickly found that I enjoyed the way the story was written as I have read so many books where people look to the past to uncover a secret or a truth that I needed something fresh and exciting. I think Fanny Blake achieved the right balance between explorations of the relationships and interactions of the couples on the tour contrasted with Sandy's own personal journey. The story was very character driven and was all the better for it.
I've never been to Italy but thanks to such gloriously descriptive writing I feel I was there every step of the way with the group. The stifling heat as they walked around the ancient site of Pompeii, the magical Trevi fountain where you make your wish, the over crowded corridors of the Vatican, the beauty of the Borghese Gardens, the spectacular sight of the Colosseum and so many more. It could have turned into listing off the various sites but instead it felt as if I was also on the holiday as a member of the group and in between the sights as shown by tour guide Gilly I got an insight into the inner workings of the characters as all are not as they seem. They may want you to think this is just another holiday for them and that everything is a bed of roses, but as the days pass by it becomes apparent that there are underlying tensions that cannot be masked when you are in such close proximity to people. Two weeks may feel like such a short time but by the end of it everyone will have changed. Lives will have been turned upside down but will it be for the good or will it be to the detriment of some more than others?
So what of the various people that Sandy meets? If it were me I would be hesitant about one of these tours but I enjoyed how she wholeheartedly embraced the experience and wanted to get as much out of it as possible. The weight of responsibility and the burdens are slowly start to lift from her shoulders even if to be honest what I would call my worst nightmare did happen for Sandy. A colleague from work, Lia, turns up on the first day of the tour and what's worse is that they are both in competition for the promotion in school. You could feel the tension oozing between the pair and I felt desperately sorry that Sandy was forced to endure her time away from the stresses of work with Lia. She was a horrible character with such snide remarks and such maddening actions and just like her fellow travellers if I heard once more about Elizabeth Gilbert I was going to scream. Lia seemed to have her finger in every pie and insinuated herself into situations where she was clearly not wanted. I felt she was manipulative and had one goal in mind and didn't really care how she achieved it. She was leaving this holiday with something and didn't care a jot for how she went about fulfilling her own personal quest. She saw people's weakness' and went for the jugular with no heed for the repercussions.
Alan was on the trip on his own but he didn't make much of an impact on me rather he was like the hanger on of the group that no one wants to take into their little unit. Similarly Benno and Alex although pleasant enough characters they were more on the periphery, happy in each other's company. Peter and Britt were an interesting couple but I would describe them as elusive as such, we had tantalising glimpses into their relationship but I wanted just that little bit more. For me apart from Sandy the most interesting relationship was that of Alice and Mark. I really loved how Sandy and Alice in spite of such a short space of time developed a friendship where they could confide in each other. They shared a bond like a kindred spirit. Alice in the beginning came across as a softie, a woman who gave up her career to stay at home looking after her stepchildren and then her own daughter with Mark. There was so much going on between Mark and herself but Alice was like a doormat, constantly being trampled on and putting up with it. She was really lost in her marriage and I wanted her to break free of the shackles that gripped her and return to the woman she once was. Mark treated her with disdain and I felt he deserved everything he got coming to him. Alice's journey in Italy was a joy to read as it was like the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis new and ready to approach life in an entirely new way.
As the group make their way from Rome to Naples, the story moved along at a lovely pace. I didn't feel things were either too drawn out or either rushed in order to move on to another aspect of the storyline. Bubbling away in the background amidst the exploration of the inner workings and dynamics of the group members was Sandy's wish to find Anna and see why Miriam was so instant she find her. I thought the use of Miriam's journal detailing her own visit to Italy was an excellent way of bridging the gap between the past and present. It also helped make Sandy's own experiences more real and authentic and it in some way elevated the distance she had felt between herself and her mother. I didn't guess the overall ending with regards to this aspect of the storyline and I was glad as it would have detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
Burdens, secrets, seeking acceptance and forgiveness, and letting go of the past to look to the future, all feature here and some characters more than others become empowered. It was more than just a tour of some of the most beautiful sights in the world, it was people finding their true-selves again and embracing what the future has to offer but a lot of ups and downs and revelations needed to occur before this process could ever hope to begin. An Italian Summer is the perfect summer read and most certainly my favourite book that I have read by Fanny Blake.