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Here, O'Faolain examines the dark coils of familial secrets and poisonous legacies, to tell a tale of passion, ambition and sly corruption, in which the essentially unexamined life of a young Irish girl--enveloped into an old, cultured, infinitely complex Italian family--discovers some surprising affinities. Anne Ryan has come for a stay at the handsome Tuscan villa at the invitation of the Marchesa Niccolosa Cavalcanti. It's the same villa in which her late mother, at 19, had experienced such dazzling happiness. But Mother had left abruptly, only to continue her affair with the magnificent ""Cosimo"" in Ireland, two years after her dismal marriage. Mother's tales of this old, brief passion (""a plant too precious to let die"") had taken root in Anne, who'd suffered under its shadow. Now Anne, whose previous love affairs just didn't measure up, falls in love with Niccolosa's middle-aged son, Guido, a lawyer and skillful practitioner of manipulation and virtuoso obscurations within the labyrinth of Italian politics. Guido's son Neri, like the priest in the author's fine The Obedient Wife (1985) who longs for the clean and simple acts of mind, condemns Guido's mores--""all contingent and adaptable."" Neri will cut the Gordian knot, yet discover--after a terrifying escapade in which he attempts to rescue a radical terrorist (or was he one?)--that ""the knot turns out to made from a mesh of human limbs."" During a dinner party that includes four elders who converse in a ritual speech of ""obscure design,"" Guido performs a periodic version of a Renaissance-style Defense of Love; Anne casually makes love with Neri; and she collects hints about Mother, and regrets Mother's ""unlived life."" Then abruptly there's a legacy, and a secret only dying Niccolosa knows. The demon, long, slumbering in the blood, rises up full-throated, and the Cavalcanti family, soon to encompass an Irish signorina, will contain one more monstrous, ""indelicate"" secret. More showy and high-flown perhaps than The Obedient Wife, but attractive, with a crisp style of easy elegance, agreeably pictorial, and with a darkly grave humor amongst the olive groves.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1986
Publisher: Adler & Adler--dist. by Harper & Row