Synopses & Reviews
From de Blasi (The Lady in the Palazzo, 2007, etc.), a fragrant tale of life and love in the mountains of Sicily.Shortly after the Venetian interlude she luxuriously captured in A Thousand Days in Venice (2002), the author accepted an assignment to write a magazine article on the interior regions of Sicily. Like many other journalists, she was met by silence from the wary Sicilians. She was about to retire to the mainland when she stumbled upon Villa Donnafugata, whose romantic turrets, towers, balconies and chromatically tiled roof were surrounded by gardens, fields, piazzas and hills. The black-draped, oldish women in residence tended to their various labors, chanted, laughed and prayed. The sun was hot, the smell of herbs suffused the air. Was this a fever dream? de Blasi wondered. No, but it was surely a place from another time, and how it emerged out of feudalism through an act of moral modernity was a story unfurled to the author by the villa's mistress, Tosca. The tale, which comprises most of the book, is a marvel. As a child of nine or ten, Tosca was sent by her horse-breeder father to live with a Sicilian prince, Leo, who had a stallion that Tosca's father wanted more than his daughter. Early rebellion gave way to affection, then love. Together, in the years following World War II, the prince and his ward brought education, health care and a shared sense of purpose to the village around their manor. Rapture and grief came in measured doses, but ultimately Leo was run out of town for his affront to the centuries'-old system of hierarchy that kept the wealthy in comfort and the poor in misery. Even in 1995, when de Blasi first visited Donnafugata, the old ways abided, like the shawl Tosca wore at night, still permeated with the scent of her beloved. Swift, sinuous, deep and brimming with cultural artifacts.
Strangers seldom wander into the mountainous wild at Sicily's heart. The locals, having resisted repeated waves of invaders, maintain their own traditions in defiance of the outside world. So when de Blasi and her Venetian husband trek into Sicily's core in search of background for a travel guide, they discover a world much removed from modern life. Persevering in what seems a fruitless search, they finally stumble upon the Villa Donnafugata, an old wreck of a castle presided over by an imperious woman called Tosca. The villa has become a refuge for widows from the region. It also houses a birthing clinic, vital to the mountains' isolated women. The residents eat well and heartily, the leftovers distributed to the local town's poor. De Blasi uncovers Tosca's past, an extraordinary tale of passion and love stretching over decades of the twentieth century. Admirers of this author will relish her latest volume.
At villa Donnafugata, long ago is never very far away, writes bestselling author Marlena de Blasi of the magnificent if somewhat ruined castle in the mountains of Sicily that she finds, accidentally, one summer while traveling with her husband, Fernando. There de Blasi is befriended by Tosca, the patroness of the villa, an elegant and beautiful woman-of-a-certain-age who recounts her lifelong love story with the last prince of Sicily descended from the French nobles of Anjou.
Sicily is a land of contrasts: grandeur and poverty, beauty and sufferance, illusion and candor. In a luminous andtantalizing voice, That Summer in Sicily re-creates Tosca's life, from her impoverished childhood to her fairy-tale adoption and initiation into the glittering life of the prince's palace, to the dawning and recognition of mutual love. But when Prince Leo attempts to better the lives of his peasants, his defiance of the local Mafia's grim will to maintain the historical imbalance between the haves and the have-nots costs him dearly.
The present-day narrative finds Tosca sharing her considerable inherited wealth with a harmonious society composed of many of the women-now widowed-who once worked the prince's land alongside their husbands. How the Sicilian widows go about their tasks, care for one another, and celebrate the rituals of a humble, well-lived life is the heart of this book.
Showcasing the same writerly gifts that made bestsellers of A Thousand Days in Venice and A Thousand Days in Tuscany, That Summer in Sicily, and de Blasi's marvelous storytelling, remind us that in order to live a rich life, one must embrace both life's sorrow and its beauty. Here is an epic drama that takes readers from Sicily's remote mountains to chaotic post-war Palermo, from the intricacies of forbidden love to the havoc wreaked by Sicily's eternally bewildering culture.
From the Hardcover edition.
“At villa Donnafugata, long ago is never very far away,” writes bestselling author Marlena de Blasi of the magnificent if somewhat ruined castle in the mountains of Sicily that she stumbles upon one summer while traveling with her husband. There de Blasi is befriended by Tosca, the patroness of the villa, who shares her own unforgettable love story. In a luminous and tantalizing voice, de Blasi re-creates Toscas life and romance with the last prince of Sicily descended from the French nobles of Anjou. But when Prince Leo attempts to better the lives of his peasants, his defiance of the local Mafia costs him dearly. The present-day narrative finds Tosca sharing her considerable inherited wealth with a harmonious society composed of many of the women-now widowed-who once worked the princes land alongside their husbands. This marvelous epic drama reminds us that in order to live a rich life, one must embrace both lifes sorrow and its beauty.
About the Author
Marlena de Blasi lives in Italy. She is the author of three memoirs, A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, and The Lady in the Palazzo, as well as three books on the foods of Italy.
Reading Group Guide
1. 1. What were your first impressions of Villa Donnafugata? What kind of place did you think it was-a monastery, a cooking school, an eccentric restaurant, a retreat house, a commune? How did your opinion of the villas state and its bustling activity change throughout the story?
2. Leos favorite myth was that of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and motherhood. How does his love of this myth and of the goddess herself reflect his love for Tosca?
3. In the introduction, Marlena de Blasi writes that “Silence is the admission of mystery” (page xxv). In what ways is this idea repeated throughout Toscas story? Do you see this at work in your own world?
4. Have you ever visited Sicily? If you have, did you find de Blasis descriptions matched your memories and experiences? If not, has reading this book inspired you to travel there?
5. How do you account for the de Blasis being so welcomed by some and so rejected by others at the start of their southern Italy escapade?
6. Carlotta describes her tribe to de Blasi by saying they are “people who need other people. We are all related by affection. We are part of one anothers history. We are Sicilian” (page 15). Do you have similar feelings for your own community? How do you define community, and what influences help keep that community together?
7. Carlotta also describes the importance of mealtimes at Donnafugata, saying: “The work is only an intermezzo, un divertimento, to fill the scant hours between meals” (page 15). Where does mealtime fit into your daily schedule? How do you balance the joys of preparing and eating food with the requirements of your day? 8. If you were to live in a commune like Villa Donnafugata, what kind of job do you think you would most prefer or would be best suited for?
9. One of the residents of Donnafugata states, “Our children dont know us as we are now. Less do they know us as we were. Oh how I wish they could have known us as we were. Do you think they would recognize their young selves in our young selves?” (page 34). How would you answer her question if applied to your own parents? And if you have children, how do you think they would respond?
10. Cossetina dies as Viola gives birth (to a daughter she names Cossetina). Have you experienced the close proximity of a death and a birth? How was this perceived among your family and friends?
11. Don Cosimo says, “Sometimes an ‘unlived love can be the best kind of love. One has only to put a face to love to be happy in it” (page 49). What does this phrase mean to you? Have you ever experienced what Don Cosimo experiences for Tosca, loving someone from a distance-even if they are close friends?
12. Tosca asks Marlena, “What do you suppose has changed in twenty-five years or so? . . . Even if its theater and its motives are being played out in a different geography, theres still war, isnt there? Still avidity and hate and violence and fear. Poverty and righteousness are still thriving. As are revolution and arrogance and lies . . . I must tell myself yet again that one need tune in only once in a lifetime to the nightly news to know the chronic story of man” (pages 53—54). In what ways do you agree with la signora? In what ways do your thoughts on current events and on staying informed conflict with hers? How do you think her philosophy was shaped by her experience living in a palace during World War II?
13. How did you reconcile that the horrors of the war did not penetrate Tosca, as opposed to the horrors she witnessed at the hands of the Mafia?
14. Tosca asked Leo to allow her to live in the borghetto, because she felt a need to be among people of her own station. Have you ever given up pleasures and comforts for the sake of friends or family? How did you feel about making that sacrifice?
15. After her mothers passing, Tosca adopted the role of being her fathers caregiver, a role she had to stop because she wanted to be herself; she did not want to be her mother. Have you ever had to end or change the parameters of a relationship because the role you were filling was meant for another, not for you?
16. Toscas circumstances-her mothers death, her fathers coldness, her familys poverty-matured her in remarkable ways that impressed Leo considerably. What circumstances in your own life have been most significant in shaping your character? Are there qualities about you that others cant help but comment on, as Leo comments on Toscas strength and boldness?
17. Why do you think Mafalda felt it was more important to find their father instead of communing with Tosca, when Tosca had been so much kinder to her than their father?
18. Mafalda tells Tosca, “I think you could upset . . . the delicious balance of this new life of mine. I cant let you in. I wont take the risk. I am not punishing you for your earlier decisions, but neither can I disregard the consequences of those decisions” (page 227). In what ways does she sound like Tosca? Have you ever shared Mafaldas feelings, having to refrain from inviting someone into your life for fear they would disrupt your own sense of balance?
19. What do you think Tosca was doing in the time she spent in Palermo, sitting at cafés, wandering the streets, observing the people living their daily lives? What, if anything, do you think she learned in that time, and how do you think it informed her next set of decisions regarding the Maqueda ladies?
20. What does Mattias arrangement with Don Cosimo reveal about the true nature of Sicilian loyalty and dignity?