Set in Siena in 1956, this debut novel is a spy thriller, comedy of manners, and valentine to Italy, spiked with forbidden sex and political skulduggery.
Eleven years after the end of World War II, young American newlyweds Scottie and Michael Messina arrive in Siena burdened with secrets. Michael is ostensibly there to sell tractors for Ford. In fact, he’s a CIA operative whose mission is to make sure the Communist mayor is defeated. He’s hiding something even more explosive, but his high-spirited wife, Scottie, doesn’t have a clue. She’s along as helpmeet—but, unbeknownst to Michael, is carrying a baby that’s not his. Complications, as they say, ensue. Robertino, a 14-year-old boy, signs on as Scottie’s Italian tutor; he’s also Michael’s “asset,” charged with stealing the local Communist Party membership rolls. When Robertino goes missing, everyone fears the worst. There’s a large supporting cast in this cinematic story, including the randy Communist mayor, Ugo; the seductive aristocrat, Carlo; and the smooth American diplomat (and Michael’s special friend), Duncan. Clare Boothe Luce, the actual American ambassador to Italy, also figures in the proceedings. Much of this is fun: packed with lies and betrayals, the book delivers plenty of juicy surprises. And the author, who was a correspondent in Italy for W and Women’s Wear Daily, takes obvious pleasure in writing about the country’s history, customs, and culinary feats. The book falters when it tries for pathos: the death of Robertino’s mother and the agony of Carlo’s wife over the loss of their son don’t mesh well with the rest of the action. The story also bogs down at times—shorter would have been better—and occasionally strains credulity.
The ending is unexpected, with the author displaying a sophisticated, nuanced view of love and marriage that feels very modern. Or maybe it’s just Italian.