The Italian Party
Christina Lynch
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Buy *The Italian Party* by Christina Lynchonline

The Italian Party
Christina Lynch
St. Martin's Press
336 pages
March 2018
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Would you rather love more, or love--and suffer--less? Lynch's story of newlyweds Michael and Scottie Messina, who have recently arrived in Siena, Tuscany, unfolds in 1956. Though it's been eleven years since the end of the war, the scars are still evident. Michael and Scottie are young, healthy, and supposedly in love, part of a wave of missionaries who hope to bring the American way of life to a grateful populace. Michael is happy to open a business selling tractors. Scottie must maintain the façade of a devoted wife, but as she hungers for a fresh start and looks out at the green fields and the distant villas, she neglects to tell Michael about her secret.

In her comical and harrowing story of life among the Italian classes, Lynch focuses on Michael and Scottie's internal ruminations. When their Ford motorcar gets stuck and has to be rescued by two oxen, the idea of establishing a home in Siena--a walled fortress city perched on a leafy green hilltop--is suddenly much more fraught than Michael had initially thought. Humiliated, Michael begins to suspect that his wife is just a silly girl "obsessed with horses." A sensitive soul who lost his brother in the war, Michael is forced to keep his tastes private. Ensconced in a ramshackle apartment in Piazza del Campo, Scottie can smell her husband's weakness and fear.

Scottie and Michael are, at heart, romantics; their story is one of optimism. Lynch's satirical, elegant style is slightly different as she shifts between Scottie and Michael's voices. Michael's focus soon turns to handsome Ugo Risino, Siena's mayor, a renowned Communist and the man at the center of Michael's mysterious mission. Michael needs to "bring Risino down," yet Ugo is an undeniably masculine man whom Michael finds beautiful and exciting. While Michael feels an urgent need to understand the importance of everything he sees, Scottie wishes she could just tell her husband her secret, perhaps even apologize and throw herself on his mercy: "it would hurt him to think she had lied to him."

Other characters appear, adding comedy and surprising bits of wisdom. Robertino is a 13-year-old oxboy whom Michael ostensibly employs to teach Scottie Italian but then enlists as a newly recruited spy. It's a perfect arrangement: Robertino will chaperone Scottie while reporting back to Michael on Scottie's movements and on the identity of Siena's suspected Communists. Robertino's sudden disappearance makes everything in Scottie and Michael's world suddenly feel sinister. When Scottie embarks on a campaign to find Robertino, she's drawn ever deeper into Ugo's political campaign and the orbit of Carlo, her sexy landlord, "each so alive in his own way." Plunged into a world of desire and betrayal, Scottie must reckon with her past flaws and mistakes.

Amid the tumbledown farmhouses and the ageless women who gaze from under headscarves as they prune grapes in the waning daylight, The Italian Party is a story which leaves us liking everyone in the book--the unscrupulous as well as the noble. Despite the inevitable losses brought by time and fate, one has the feeling that a satisfying resolution awaits. With Robertino his only asset, Michael attempts to sabotage Ugo's election bid. Michael is compulsively clever and charming, but also more sensitive to the shallowness of privilege. He's unnerved by his secret mission and anxious over the threats of Communist control. Meanwhile, in the Piazza del Campo, Carlo prepares for the Palio, a colorful horse race held twice a year. Carlo is an honest in danger of being corrupted by power. He also fills Scottie with despair; she has a sense that "she has landed in the wrong square and will never find her way home again."

Perhaps Italy is not carefree and romantic as Scottie first thought, too dense and too mysterious and too dangerous. Scottie thought finding Robertino would solve everything, but her search has only uprooted her and left her with nothing except her need to "dig and unbury" the scandalous secrets of her husband. From the risks of tyranny to the rewards of justice, Lynch's lessons are clear: Michael's quest for forbidden love has caused him to navigate the treacherous reaches of passion, while Scottie's secrets are woven into the very fabric of her being and seem to give her protection against an unfriendly, unjust world.

The book is full of colors, textures, tastes, and vivid descriptions that teeter somewhere between the past and present. The author's prose brilliantly captures the essence of Siena: the narrow lanes, undulating green hills, vineyards and olive groves, as well as the famous sun-dappled fields of Tuscany. Hearts are filled with happiness and waiting is tempered with hope. The novel is a true Italian party, steadfast in its air of adventure and espionage and gorgeous in its evocation of love and life. Maybe, in the end, Scottie and Michael are just meant to be together.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2018

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