Monday, March 26, 2018

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen, a novel of secrets, wartime danger, and culinary delights in scenic Tuscany

The Tuscan Child marks my first experience reading one of Rhys Bowen’s adult novels even though she’s written many, primarily mysteries. However, when I was in middle and high school, I was a fan of the Sweet Dreams teenage romances and have fond memories of them, including the ones written by Bowen under her real name.

Both foodies and anyone dreaming of a vacation in scenic Italy should be drawn to The Tuscan Child. It fits in with two historical fiction trends – multi-period novels about secrets from the past, and World War II – and its locale and plot twists add originality.

In 1973, following some personal trauma, Joanna Langley returns home to Surrey after getting notified of her father’s unexpected death. Sir Hugo Langley had been a baronet, but financial hardship had forced him to sell the family estate, Langley Hall, years ago. Now it’s a girls’ boarding school, which Joanna attended growing up; Sir Hugo had worked as the art master there while living with his wife and daughter in the gatekeeper’s lodge. A mystery unfolds when Joanna goes through her father’s effects and finds a love letter he wrote, in Italian, addressed to “Mia carissima Sofia” and referring to “their beautiful boy,” whose whereabouts he kept secret. The letter had been returned to sender.

Joanna knows that Sir Hugo, a former RAF pilot, had flown WWII bombing missions and was injured after being shot down but never spoke about it. Needless to say, an unknown half-brother is quite a surprise. Joanna has little to go on but, determined to find him, she packs up and travels to Italy for answers. Her story alternates with Hugo’s nearly thirty years earlier, as he parachutes out of a damaged plane, conceals himself in crumbling monastery ruins near the Tuscan village of San Salvatore, and is aided by a young mother, Sofia, whose husband is missing in action.

Bowen made feel I was there alongside Hugo—cold, feverish, and creatively devising sources of shelter and food—and Joanna, experiencing a sense of freedom in the sun-dappled Tuscan hills. Both father and daughter find themselves in life-threatening situations: he from the Germans, and she because soon after she arrives, she learns someone doesn’t want old secrets uncovered.

The suspenseful aspects are counterbalanced by the mouthwatering recipes (Joanna’s landlady is a talented cook who wants to fatten her up so she'll find a husband) and depictions of the picturesque Tuscan countryside, with its rows of olive trees, rocky crags, and ocher-colored roofs. The Tuscan Child isn’t a mystery by genre; the plot is rather sedate at times. Still, Bowen’s deep roots in the genre are noticeable. I admired one plot twist, since I would have found it nearly impossible to predict.

Despite some stereotypical personalities, I enjoyed spending time in San Salvatore and recommend the book to anyone who wants to “travel by novel.”

I reviewed this novel from a NetGalley copy.

6 comments:

  1. My goodness, family mystery, Tuscany, history AND recipes? Sounds like a winning formula! Are the recipes at the back of the book?

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    1. No recipes were included in my ARC, but I did a fair amount of googling afterward :)

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  2. I've never read a Rhys Bowen novel either, so this looks like it will be my first one, too.

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    1. I'm not sure why I waited so long to read one, but it can sometimes be difficult starting a series in the middle.

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  3. I've not read any of Rhys Bowen's mystery series, but I did enjoy In Farleigh Field, her other WWII novel. I'm looking forward to reading this one - dual time frame, WWII and recipes!

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    1. In Farleigh Field has been on my TBR for a while.

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