It’s a real pleasure to be part of Bookouture‘s Books-on-tour again today, this time sharing my review of The Italian Girls by Debbie Rix: published on 28th September, it’s now available via Amazon for kindle, as an audiobook and in paperback. My thanks to Bookouture for inviting me to join the tour and for my advance reading e-copy (provided via netgalley), and to Sarah Hardy for her ongoing support.
I first discovered Debbie Rix’s wonderful writing way back in 2015 – I read and reviewed Secrets of the Tower (now The Girl with Emerald Eyes): you can read my review again here. The characters, the Pisa setting, the historical detail, the story-telling – I thought it was just wonderful. And since then, Debbie has written four more books – they’re all on my kindle, and I haven’t managed to read a single one of them. In my defence, I think I’ve perhaps been focusing less on historical fiction over the last few years, more on romcoms and other romance – but when I spotted The Italian Girls, I remembered how much I’d loved her earlier book and just couldn’t resist.
The sun hung low in the sky, casting pink light all over the city. A faint breeze blew over the rooftops, as flocks of starlings swirled above her, swooping and diving in unison. It seemed unimaginable that, even now, German soldiers were marching along the streets below. It was time, she decided, for direct action. It was time to fight back.
Each morning Livia Moretti makes her way from an apartment overlooking Florence’s famous Duomo to a nearby café, where she drinks espresso and reads the newspaper. To the crowds of tourists who pass by, snapping selfies, nothing about Livia will be memorable. She is simply an old lady. They walk on without knowing the part she played in ensuring the future of this beautiful city. And to Livia now, those dark days feel very far away too.
But today, when she opens the paper, she sees a name she has not heard for a long time. A name that will bring memories flooding back of Nazi troops marching through the city and the dangers she faced as a young woman, carrying out secret missions for the resistance.
A siren of the silver screen, Isabella cultivated all the right connections to ensure her rise to stardom. But when Rome falls to the Nazis, Isabella is suddenly faced with the choice between protecting herself, and all she has worked for, or sacrificing everything to save the man she loves.
As the war rages across Europe, a terrible misunderstanding causes the fates of Isabella and Livia to become forever intertwined. And each woman must decide what they’re willing to risk, to protect the ones they hold dear from a brutal enemy.
Inspired by the incredible true stories of two women in wartime Italy, this is a heart-wrenching and unforgettable tale of love, resistance, betrayal and hope. Fans of Kate Furnivall, Fiona Valpy and My Name is Eva will be absolutely gripped by this sweeping Second World War novel.
I think I’ve rediscovered my love of historical fiction – and as stories go, I think you’ll struggle to find anything much better than this one. War-torn Italy, the Fascist-owned Italian film industry, the struggle of the partisans, the constant threat of the Nazi presence, the bravery of some of the individuals involved – with two wonderfully drawn characters I took to my heart, there wasn’t much chance I wasn’t going to love this one really, was there?
Of the two, Isabella’s perhaps the more difficult to like – living in her “world of make-believe” she’s extraordinarily naive about the realities of war, pursuing her complete infatuation with film director (and partisan) Vicenzo, endangering others as she continues to move in the highest Nazi and fascist circles. I love a book that has you breaking off to explore Google – but I’d already learned a lot from the book about the pre-war Italian film history, the origins of Cinecitta (Mussolini – who knew?) and the telefoni bianchi. The wartime Rome backdrop is quite wonderfully drawn – you can both see it and feel it, and the way the author uses her research to bring it all to life is extraordinary. And although Isabella’s unsympathetic at the start, my feelings certainly turned full circle as her story unfolded.
Livia is considerably more sympathetic from outset – moving to Florence to begin her studies, living with her liberal lawyer father and protective mother (both also excellent characters), slowly becoming more involved in the work of the resistance through Partito d’Azione, showing the most exceptional bravery inspired by her strong sense of right and wrong and her love for her country. But she’s also never less than real – she has her doubts and worries, she feels fear, she sometimes acts impetuously, and I really couldn’t help loving everything about her.
I really, really liked the way the story was constructed. It begins with Livia as an old woman with failing sight visiting her favourite cafe, as she does every day – and the book is rounded off in the same way, with one of those perfect uplifting endings. But in between, we follow both women’s stories – they don’t meet, but their lives do intersect a little. That dual thread is maintained quite perfectly throughout, no discomfort at all with the transitions, both stories equally compelling and emotionally engaging.
There’s a real feeling of historical authenticity through it all – real-life figures combined with the author’s creations based on real people – and I enjoyed every moment. You’re left in no doubt about the acts of cruelty, the constant threat and danger – but the author never uses cardboard villains, every key player is fully rounded and given depth and character. The sense of place and living through a chapter of history is wonderful – both Rome and Florence before and during the Nazi occupation. There’s a nice touch of romance too – for Livia real and believable, while Isabella’s is perhaps just a little more one-sided. The themes are strong too – loyalty, betrayal, friendship, the bonds of family and so much more.
This isn’t a book you simply read, it’s a book you really feel – and I thought it was quite wonderful. I can’t believe it took me so long to try Debbie Rix’s writing once more: I’d recommend this book really highly.
About the author
Debbie Rix has had a long career in journalism, including working as a presenter for the BBC. Her first novel, The Girl with Emerald Eyes was set around the building of the tower of Pisa: she has since released Daughters of the Silk Road, The Silk Weaver’s Wife, The Photograph and The Secret Letter. The Italian Girls is her sixth novel. Debbie writes heartbreaking historical novels about love, tragedy and secrets.
Debbie spends a lot of time in Italy and the setting of the novels reflects her knowledge and passion for the country. She lives in the Kent countryside with her journalist husband, children, sheep, chickens and cats. When not writing, she is usually to be found in the vegetable garden. She began her career with the BBC – initially as the news reader on Breakfast Time, thereafter appearing as a presenter and reporter on a variety of factual and light entertainment television series. She had a spell as an Agony Aunt, and has also written about gardens and gardening – one of her private passions.