Tess Angel is a single mother whose daughter, Ginny, is eighteen and about to fly the nest if she can ever figure out what she wants to do with her life. Tess works in an unfulfilling job where she is unappreciated and her lover is a married man but her life isn't all the stuff of cliche; she has the love and close support of her parents and a dear friend who lives next door. Her mother is Sicilian but Flavia never speaks of her past before coming to England so the only real connection Tess has to this half of her heritage is through food. When the novel opens, Tess has just received a letter informing her that she's inherited a villa in Sicily from a man she's met named Edward Westerman, the Englishman her mother's family worked for for so many years back home in Sicily. According to the terms of his will, she cannot dispose of the villa without first visiting it and when she tells her mother, Flavia is certain Tess should not go, certainly not to Cetaria to claim Villa Sirena, the place where Flavia grew up. But Tess cannot resist the pull and so she goes despite her mother's misgivings.
Ginny, meanwhile, is floundering in her life. She doesn't want to go to uni but she has no other direction either. She is a sullen and deeply unhappy young woman. She is battling something internal that she calls "The Ball," a manifestation of her anxiety or fear or angst or unhappiness. Ginny sort of drifts in her life, hurt that her best friend has chosen to spend all her time with a boyfriend, only marginally interested in her own lackluster relationship, and at odds with her mother, wanting to reclaim their earlier ease with each other but driven, in the manner of teenagers, to lash out and push against Tess.
As Tess spends first a week exploring her somewhat dilapidated home on a cliff overlooking the sea, and then a longer stretch of time trying to uncover her mother's past and the reason for her intentional reticence about Sicily, Flavia realizes that she must in fact tell Tess the story of why she left Sicily in the first place and why she refuses to go back or to discuss it at all, even if the remembering brings her pain. Choosing to write the story in small increments in a journal and to intersperse the narrative with the instructions for her beloved Sicilian cuisine, Flavia takes the reader back into the past to WWII Italy and into the long held family loyalties and feuds of Sicily.
The narratives of all three women wind together although those of Tess and Flavia take center stage. As Tess tries of uncover her mother's past, Flavia pours out her closely guarded secrets to the journal she intends to give to Tess. Flavia's tale explains things that Tess, hundreds of miles away in Sicily, is experiencing but cannot possibly understand. She is drawn to mosaicist Tonino and a little leery of slick businessman Giovanni but she doesn't understand how they are connected to her through their families and how the accusations and fall out of simmering anger from so long ago survive to this day and wrap to include her, a woman who has never before stepped foot in Cetaria.
The Sicilian setting is seductive and enticing. Ley captures the overwhelming beauty and intense passion of the place and also the undercurrents of darkness and danger running just below the surface of the sun drenched isle. Tess and Flavia are interesting and complete characters while Ginny is less so and their stories reflect that fact. There is never any doubt as to who the bad guy and who the good guy are in Tess' present day story and the other supporting characters and their relationships to the main characters are underdeveloped. Ley throws in a couple unearned convenient coincidences like Ginny's absentee father giving Tess money just when she most needs it, Lenny's last name being Angel after Peter called Flavia his angel, and a well-timed earthquake that allows Tess to finally put to rest all of the accusations and speculation of the past sixty or so years. Despite these easy plot choices, this was a nice summer read, chock full of issues of love, loyalty, and secrets. And in the end, both Flavia and Tess realized that while their daughters might make different life choices than they would, wanting the best for your child means allowing her to be the mistress of her own destiny. You just never know where that destiny might lead.
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Thanks to Steffi from Rock Star PR and Literary Consultants and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.