A HOUSE IN SICILY by Daphne Phelps


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Another memoir by a British subject extolling the virtues of Italy and the Italians. But Phelps is in many ways outside the mold. To begin with, she is a woman and a former social worker. Just as importantly, she settled in Sicily, not Tuscany. Sicily is a world away from Tuscany; the Baroque and Arab influence are more in evidence here than Renaissance classicism. At 36, Phelps inherited Casa Cuseni, generally acknowledged to be one of the finest houses in Taormina, in the northeast corner of Sicily. Without meaning to, she fell in love with the house and the locals, a colorful cast of characters, including Concetta Genio, housekeeper and friend. By transforming the Casa Cuseni into a modest pensione, she managed to keep it for the past half-century and attract an eccentric group of English, American, and foreign visitors. These included Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, and Tennessee Williams. In the process, she collected a menagerie of animals and innumerable friends, and was named godmother to a troupe of Sicilian puppets. Adding a charming aspect to the work is the clash of cultures: English and Sicilian, Protestant and Catholic, Mediterranean male and northern European female (the sight of Phelps behind the steering wheel of an automobile is cause for an entire town to turn out to witness the never-before-seen spectacle.) Phelps has a deep-seated empathy for the poverty of the Sicilians, but an anticommunist bias that fails to understand the social cause of that orientation. In the end, the cast of characters is more interesting than the author herself; not because of the self-effacing nature of the writing, but because of the colorful and charismatic culture that Phelps finds herself immersed in. The house itself has been officially declared a site of “cultural and historic importance,” no mean feat in Italy. A charming memoir that only begins to uncover the myriad facets of life and culture in Sicily. (8 pages color photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-7867-0656-2
Page count: 275pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1999


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