Last year, the prolific Rhys Bowen gifted us with a stand-alone book, Farleigh Field. Set in England during WWII, it was a smashing success, and it was just my cup of tea in WWII novels, with mystery and history and shocking revelations. That I had two more novels from Rhys to enjoy last year, too, in her Royal Spyness series and her Molly Murphy series, was incredible good fortune. Well, she has done it again in 2018 with the stand-alone The Tuscan Child, another WWII novel, but set mostly in Tuscany. I knew that Rhys had spent lots of time in Tuscany recently, and I was quite envious, but her meticulous research benefits us all in this new novel, as the fictional village town of San Salvatore comes gloriously alive to our senses while reading this gripping tale. How does this author put out three outstanding books in one year? I suspect cloning, but I don't mind that science would work for my reading pleasures.
The novel is told in two timelines, December 1944-Spring 1945 and April 1973-June 1973. The story begins at its beginning, in December 1944. British bombing pilot Hugo Langley is the sole survivor of his plane when he is shot down over Italy by the Germans. Although wounded, he is able to parachute to the safety of an olive tree orchard in the Tuscany area of Italy. Continuing his good fortune, he is discovered by a young woman named Sofia Bartoli, who, at great risk to herself, helps him struggle to a bombed out monastery on a hill above the village. With the Germans occupying the area and Hugo's leg compromising his ability to travel, he is forced to hide in the shambles of the old monastery and rely on Sofia to bring him food and supplies. It is a life and death situation for them both, as Hugo's hiding and Sofia's assistance could be discovered and reported to the Germans at any time. As time passes, Hugo's thoughts of his half-hearted marriage in England turn to thoughts of love for the brave and beautiful Sofia, and Sofia, whose husband has been missing in action for some time, falls in love with Hugo, too. It is a time and place where love is stripped of its class boundaries and impossible futures, and the aristocratic Hugo and Sofia of simple means dare to tempt fate and probability.
Fast forward to April 1973, and Hugo's daughter, Joanna Langley, comes home to Surrey England from working on her law degree in London to bury her father, who has died at the age of only 64. Joanna's mother had died when Joanna was eleven, and she and her father had continued to live in the gatekeeper's house where Joanna had been born on the Langley estate, an estate that had to be sold after the war due to death taxes from Hugo's father's death. Upon going through her father's possessions that had been stored in Langley Hall's attic, Joanna discovers an unopened letter to a Sofia Bartoli in Tuscany with a "return to sender/address unknown" stamp on it. It is a love letter written after her father returned home to England, and in it Hugo mentions his and Sofia's "beautiful boy." Joanna is thunderstruck at this revelation that her cold, distant father had been in love with an Italian woman in the village where his plane had been shot down during the war, and that here might have been a child from the affair is astonishing. In further examining her father's belongings, she comes across a sketch of a woman and some of his art work that he had never shared with Joanna's mother and her. Joanna realizes that she hadn't really known her father, who had kept himself closed off to her. She suddenly wants to know about the man he had been before he shut the world out, and the only place she feels she can get answers is the Tuscan village of San Salvatore. So, she sets off for Tuscany on a mission to understand the mystery that was her father and see if she possibly has a brother left behind.
With Joanna's appearance in San Salvatore, the bulk of the novel takes place in Tuscany, which now gives readers a look at the present-day village as well as the war-torn village when Hugo hid in its hills. The scenery and food are both luscious and engaging. The woman whose place Joanna stays at in the village is a cook from Italian culinary heaven, and reading about the meals she fixes is a wonderful bonus to the story. But, Joanna's friendly, nurturing atmosphere of Paola's house is not the typical reception she gets in this new place. There are secrets that have lasted far too long to be dug up by a nosy Englishwoman. Tuscany is a place of great beauty and time-honored traditions, but it is also a place where the past can deliver a dangerous present for someone disturbing it.
I'm a fan of different timelines in stories, but there is a skilled finesse to creating a smooth sync between them. Rhys Bowen does that masterfully. Hugo's story in 1944 and Joanna's story in 1973 need each other to tell a complete story for both characters. The Tuscan Child is a great story in showing how people get to be the people they are, and it's an interesting look at the family dynamics of parent and child, making the point of parents as people before they are parents. The historical aspect of this fictional tale touched upon the interesting aspects of the demise of the great estates in England after WWII and the suffering of the Italian people once their alliance with Germany was ended in 1943. I appreciate historical fiction that spurs you on to learn more, and this story does that. Rhys has long been a talented character creator, and the characters of Hugo and Joanna and Sofia, along with an intriguing cast of minor characters, will stay with you long after the last page is turned. This book will be an easy choice for my 2018 favorite reads list.