About the Book
In the Eternal City, no secret stays hidden forever…
Lottie Archer arrives in Rome newly married and ready for change as she takes up a job as an archivist. When she discovers a valuable fifteenth-century painting, she is drawn to find out more about Nina Lawrence, the woman who left it behind, .
Nina seems to have led a rewarding and useful life, restoring Italian gardens to their full glory following the destruction of World War Two. So why did no one attend her funeral in 1978?
In exploring Nina’s past, Lottie unravels a complicated love story beset by the political turmoil of post-war Italy. And as she edges closer to understanding Nina, and the city draws her deeper into its life, she is brought up against a past which will come to shape her own future.
Format: Hardcover (368 pages) Publisher: Corvus
Publication date: 3rd June 2021 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
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Nina’s part of the story, revealed through her journal and other papers, features a particularly turbulent time in Italy’s political history – the late 1970s – a period I’ve not seen featured in historical fiction before. Although perhaps it’s my age that makes it difficult for me to see any part of the 1970s as ‘historical’!
Regular followers of my blog will know I’m not a great fan of the narrative device of the secret journal, finding it rather artificial. However, in this case the author manages to make it work chiefly because Lottie’s role as an archivist naturally involves the perusal of previously unexamined papers. Although I still found Nina’s journal remarkably detailed (she obviously had a good memory for conversations), the motivations suggested for her having kept it were believable, albeit unwise given what the reader learns about her.
As Lottie discovers, the devious machinations of government officials and those employed by the Vatican during Nina’s time in Rome continue into the present day. As one character observes, ‘The Vatican is home to the humble, the saintly and the ambitious’. And in a country where family is everything, the power of blood ties to influence events should never be underestimated or ignored.
The similarities between the two women could make them merge into one but the author successfully ensures they exist as characters in their own right. In the case of Nina, it’s her love of botanical history and the hint of intrigue. In the case of Lottie, it’s her passion for documenting and preserving the records of past lives. As Lottie reflects at one point, ‘She had a strange feeling that Nina Lawrence was speaking directly to her’. Having said that, Lottie’s curiosity does seem to have a blind spot closer to home.
As you would expect from a novel set in Rome, food features prominently. Who can blame Lottie for being tempted by the goods displayed in a delicatessen window? ‘The jars of goats’ cheeses in oil, black olives in cream earthenware bowls and salamis hanging from ceiling hooks like stalactites.’ The atmosphere of ‘the Eternal City’ is vividly evoked and I enjoyed learning about the symbolism of Medieval religious art, especially the significance of the colours used, ‘paint ventriloquism at its most dazzling’ as it is so eloquently described.
The author’s choice of Rome as a setting – a city I’ve been fortunate enough to visit – combined with a story that encompasses art history and garden design ticked plenty of boxes for me. Add in the element of mystery and a touch of romance, and you have a book that deserves to have a wide appeal. I really enjoyed it and a return trip to Rome is definitely going on my wishlist.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Atlantic Books and Readers First.
In three words: Emotional, atmospheric, compelling
Try something similar: The Spanish Girl by Jules Hayes
About the Author
Elizabeth Buchan was a fiction editor at Random House before leaving to write full time. Her novels include the prize-winning Consider the Lily, international bestseller Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and The New Mrs Clifton.
She reviews for the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and has chaired the Betty Trask and Desmond Elliot literary prizes. She was a judge for the Whitbread First Novel Award and for the 2014 Costa Novel Award. (Photo credit: Publisher author page)