Women Writers Divide Italy into Sun and Shadow

Mayes, Gable, Smith, Leon set their tales in The Great Good Place

By , Contributor
What is it about women writers and Italy? Although John Ruskin and Henry James loved Italy and wrote about it evocatively, nowadays women have taken up where they left off. The interesting thing is the difference between nonfiction and fiction.

frances_mayes.jpgWhen it comes to women‘s nonfiction about Italy, the major player is Frances Mayes, of course. Her account of the heroic efforts that she and her husband put into renovating a villa near Cortona, Under the Tuscan Sun, got well-deserved rave reviews, and was made into a pretty good movie. The other two books in what became a trilogy are Bella Tuscany and Every Day in Tuscany.

In a similar vein, Sally Gable’s Palladian Days describes the experience of buying, moving into, and renovating one of the great buildings of the Western world, the Villa Cornaro near Venice.

In both books the women are enchanted by the usual suspects in Italy: the people, the food, the art. However, Mayes and Gable write about them with the delight of Americans who have found what Henry James called The Great Good Place. As they learn Italian and settle in, they experience some of the darker sides of Italian society, but basically their books are sunny as Florence in June.

april smith white shotgun.jpgNot surprisingly, women who write detective fiction set in Italy concentrate on the darker sides of Italian life. One of the best of these is April Smith’s White Shotgun, her fourth book about FBI Special Agent Ana Grey. Although Smith sets the novel in Siena in the summer, the sun is soon clouded over by the twin shadows of drugs and violence. White Shotgun is one of the best adventure/thriller/detective novels of recent years, and I can only repeat what Robert Crais said about Smith: “One of the finest, smartest, most gifted writers working in crime fiction today.”

The unquestioned queen of detective fiction set in Italy is Donna Leon, who has just donna-leon-guido-brunetti-collection.jpgpublished Drawing Conclusions, her twentieth novel about Venetian police commissioner Guido Brunetti. She is such a formidable crime fiction writer that she deserves a separate blog, but for the moment it must be enough to make some general comments.

Unlike Ana Gray, Leon’s much-loved hero was born in Venice, and can’t imagine living anywhere else.  Since Brunetti is a happily married man with two charming children, Leon admits a good deal of sunshine into his life. But that sunshine is more than offset by the deep shadows of the social problems that he encounters. Although it would do a disservice to so fine a writer as Leon to say that she preaches, but she does use her fiction to address some of the issues that plague contemporary Italy such as corruption, pollution, and the persecution of minorities such as homosexuals and gypsies. I know of no other crime writer who can show a passionate concern for social justice while writing superb popular fiction.

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