Published: 1 January 2012
When Tess Angel receives a solicitor’s letter inviting her to claim her inheritance – the dilapidated but beautiful Villa Sirena, perched on a clifftop in Sicily - she is stunned. Her only link to the island is through her mother, Flavia, who left Sicily following World War II and cut all contact with her family. Could this be Tess’s chance to find out why?
Initially resistant to Tess going back to her roots, Flavia realises the secrets from her past are about to be revealed and decides to try to explain her actions. She compiles a book of her family’s traditional Sicilian recipes as a legacy to pass on to her daughter and tells her story which began in the summer of 1944 when she rescued an injured English pilot in the countryside near her home in Cetaria and helped nurse him back to health.
Meanwhile, Tess’s teenage daughter Ginny has lost her sense of direction. She is stressed by college and by her blossoming sexuality and consumed by questions that she longs to ask her father - if only she knew where he was.
Shocked to discover she has been left a villa by a complete stranger, Tess realises her Sicilian mother, Flavia, has secrets that may hold the key to the truth regarding her inheritance, so she travels to Sicily to learn more.
For Flavia, the inheritance brings back bitter memories of feuding families and a war time romance that was cruelly taken away from her by her domineering father. Unable to stop Tess from going to Sicily, Flavia realises it is time to confront her past and she begins to write down her memories so she can share them with her daughter. Flavia’s story is a tale of lost love and a desire to be free from a patriarchal society that denied her the freedom to live her own life.
In the meantime, Tess’s daughter, Ginny, struggling to find her own place in the world, has evolved into a typically moody teenager who finds fault with everything her mother does and their relationship has become distant. As Tess leaves for Sicily, Ginny revels her new found freedom but the arrival of the father she has never met throws her into a tailspin.
The story is told from the viewpoint of each of these women and is more or less successful as it weaves the past with the present, however much of Flavia’s story is told from her journal which only serves to distance the reader from her younger self as much of it is told rather than shown. When Flavia rescues Peter, an English airman, who crashes on to the island during the Second World War, Flavia finds herself falling in love with him. However, when Flavia’s father discovers the truth, he arranges for the Englishman to be moved elsewhere but Flavia clings to Peter’s promise he will return for her after the war.
The love story between Flavia and Peter is a hugely important part of the book but it is portrayed in such a lukewarm manner, I was never really sold on it. In fact, that pretty much sums up how all the romances are portrayed in The Villa as they are not given much room to breathe and suffer from a distinct lack of chemistry.
The heart of the story is really about the three women and their individual journeys as they come to terms with the past so they can embrace the future. Despite my reservations on how Flavia’s story is told via her journal, her tale is one of great courage as she breaks all ties with her family to forge a new life for herself in England. Decades later, her daughter, Tess is following her mother’s example in the opposite direction by leaving behind her life in England to start fresh in Sicily.
Out of the three women, Ginny was my least favourite as she is nothing more than the stereotypical teenager trying to find her way by alienating those around her and making questionable decisions. I was never entirely convinced of Ginny’s voice as she was constantly saying things like ‘jumping jellyfish’ and ‘leaping lizards’ which I found very unrealistic.
The real star of the show is the Sicilian setting which was described beautifully, so much so you could almost feel the warmth of the sun on your skin and smell the delicious aroma of the food. The mystery plot surrounding the inheritance of the villa relies a bit too heavily on cliches for my liking as it isn’t long before we hear tales of long lost treasure and the corrupt influence of the mafia. The reason for Tess being left the house is never properly explained and the logic is dubious at best. All in all, The Villa is a decent, if undemanding, summer read which is best not thought about too deeply.