Half glamorous fun, half an examination of America’s role in the world, and filled with sun-dappled pasta lunches, prosecco, charming spies and horse racing, The Italian Party by Christina Lynch is a smart pleasure (available March 20, 2018).
Newly married, Scottie and Michael are seduced by Tuscany’s famous beauty. But the secrets they are keeping from each other force them beneath the splendid surface to a more complex view of ltaly, America and each other.
When Scottie’s Italian teacher―a teenager with secrets of his own―disappears, her search for him leads her to discover other, darker truths about herself, her husband and her country. Michael’s dedication to saving the world from communism crumbles as he begins to see that he is a pawn in a much different game. Driven apart by lies, Michael and Scottie must find their way through a maze of history, memory, hate and love to a new kind of complicated truth.
LA LUPA, THE WOLF
“FROM ROME THE COAT OF ARMS, FROM SIENA THE HONOR”
TUSCANY, APRIL 25, 1956
Newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Michael Messina drove down the Via Cassia from Florence, he at the wheel, she with the map. The car was brand-new, a two-tone Ford Fairlane in canary yellow and white, headlights gazing into the future, the only car of its kind in all of Italy. It was twice the size of the tiny, drab little Italian matchboxes they were passing, like an eagle amidst starlings.
A young girl bicycling home from school along the side of the road, a woman selling wild asparagus at the pullout, a man tying down grapevines who was stretching his back as they sailed past—they could do nothing but stare, mouths agape, then shake their heads. Americani. It was like they came from another planet.
It had been eleven years since the end of war in Europe. Most Italians just wanted to forget and move on. Rebuilding was well under way, yet the scars of war were still evident everywhere, in every sense, if you knew where to look. Milan, for example, had been nearly leveled, but with great practicality the Milanese had bulldozed all of the debris into a neat, enormous pile on the outskirts of the city, covered it with dirt, nicknamed it “the Little Mountain,” and built a new city center. Naples distracted itself with Sophia Loren. In central Italy, the scene of much heavy fighting as the Germans reluctantly retreated up the peninsula, many chose to leave rather than rebuild, so that ghostly ruins were being slowly swallowed by nature, half an ivy-covered arch here, a fig tree growing through a cracked tile roof there, stone walls crumbling under the claws of rampant, unruly caper bushes.
“Don’t you wish,” the wife said, tracing her finger along the edge of the car window, “that when you met someone, you could see the story of his or her life? Fast, like a quick little movie, you know?”
“That sounds awful,” said her husband, teasing. “I don’t want people to see me picking my nose in fourth grade.”
“No,” she insisted, “it would be just the most important events, the ones that have shaped who they are. So you could really knowthem.”
“Still not signing up,” he said. They passed a dilapidated blue bus, every face inside turned to watch them, wide-eyed.
“Really? Don’t you think it would help us all get along better? Understand each other better?”
“Like if I saw Stalin’s childhood puppy getting run over I would have liked him better? Don’t think so.”
She blushed. “I guess you’re right.”
As the car zoomed down the road, Scottie took it all in, her eyes hungry for a new landscape, a fresh start. She reminded herself that it was better that Michael couldn’t see the story of her life. He would never have married her. But she would like to see his—there was so much about him she didn’t know. In fact, she really didn’t know much about him at all. Where to even begin?
“Did you have your teeth straightened?” she asked.
Michael and Scottie stood out from the moment they strolled down the gangplank of the sleek ocean liner that carried them and their possessions to Italy. They seemed to have stepped right out of an advertisement for Betty Crocker, Wonder Bread or capitalism itself. He was twenty-four, handsome, always in a nicely cut suit, camera around his neck. She, barely twenty, was a knockout. Blond, pretty, quick to laugh, always in an elegant hat and pearl choker. She had what the Italians call raffinatezza, a word that covers everything that is the opposite of vulgar—a quality Italians deeply aspired to, while at the same time remaining powerless to resist anything gilded, mirrored, shiny or bejeweled. This spring the papers were full of the marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, and it was as if Siena’s own version of the royal couple had arrived. Even though there were other Americans coming and going in Siena, those two would become the Americans. Gli americani. Both of them so young, healthy, wealthy and in love. They seemed so free. That was how they seemed.
They were arriving in Siena as part of a wave of missionaries bringing the American way of life to what they were certain would be a grateful populace.
Michael felt like he’d won the lottery. This beautiful creature had agreed to marry him and come on a foreign adventure. A Vassar girl, from a good family out in California! Him just a boy from the Bronx! And the best part was, she wasn’t that smart. Because that’s what Michael wanted. What he needed. Someone who wasn’t too curious. Someone who would mistake his version of things for the truth.
The Italians would take them at face value, see only what they were meant to see. As a culture the Italians valued furbizia—slyness—more than honesty, but they would not expect to find it in Americans, who were generally seen as genial idiots ripe for the plucking. It was only natural for Michael and Scottie to make assumptions about each other, too. They had known each other just a short time, and no courtship is entirely honest. It was convenient for Michael that Scottie had been taught that asking questions—as long as they were not too personal, or impertinent—rather than offering opinions made a man feel like he was being listened to, and supported. She had been taught that a woman likes to feel beautiful, and a man likes to feel superior.
That was what she had been taught.
That was what he believed she had learned.
The Fairlane leapt over potholes that threatened to eat the smaller Italian cars.
“You know, this road’s been here since Julius Caesar’s time,” said Michael.
“Tell me about Caesar,” said Scottie. “Would he get along with Eisenhower, you think?”
He stretched his arm along the seatback and tickled her neck, as if she were a small dog. “Well, they could sure swap ideas about building highways,” said Michael, who enjoyed retreating into history when the present felt too threatening, which was much of the time. Behind the movie-star-handsome dark brows, strong, masculine nose and square chin, he was a nervous fellow, still the schoolboy who had compensated for his social insecurity by doing well in school. The classroom, in fact, was the only place he had ever felt at home. “Caesar had his legions lay these stones by hand to a depth of four feet, which is deeper than Ike’s crews are building the new interstates.” Michael had told her that within a few years, Americans would be able to drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific without waiting at a single stoplight. Michael had told her that the Italians were using some of the billion dollars that America had given them to rebuild after the war for high-speed roads here, too. Michael had told her a lot of things. She hoped there wasn’t going to be a quiz. The classroom was the last place Scottie ever felt comfortable. Letters and words on a page were a jumbled code she struggled to decipher. No one had ever told her that she had dyslexia. Her teachers assumed she was stupid, and so did she, unable to see that her ability to adapt to almost any situation with good humor was a greater asset than any PhD.
“A new highway’s going to come right through here. It’ll put this place on the map. No more donkey carts,” he said as he swerved around one.
“I love the donkeys.” She waved to the lop-eared donkey and the woman leading it, who glared at her and made a gesture. Michael didn’t see it, so Scottie said, “What does this mean?” and Michael looked at her, a little shocked, and laughed nervously.
“Where did you see that?” he asked.
“Is it rude?”
“Very. I wouldn’t do that again.”
She laughed, and he laughed with her. Neither of them would ever sink so low as to make rude gestures!
The car rat-a-tatted over the old basalt stones underneath its mighty wheels. The green fields they passed were dotted with red poppies. Scottie spotted distant villas tucked into greenery, her eye drawn to the occasional gray or pair of bays grazing in an olive grove.
“Nice,” she said. “Not thoroughbreds, but well put together, though.” She looked over at Michael. “We should go riding sometime.” She pictured them galloping along side by side over these lovely green hills. That was what she would do if her best friend, Leona, were here with her. She and Leona always had fun together. Couldn’t marriage be like that?
As they came around a curve, Siena suddenly appeared above them, a walled fortress city perched on a leafy green hilltop, terraces of tan brick and stone buildings with dark red terra-cotta roofs underneath an immense cupola, and the black and white Cheshire cat stripes of the Duomo’s prickly bell tower jutting up into a clear blue sky.
“I think you’re going to like it here,” Michael said. “Siena’s a very interesting place. It was on an ancient religious route, so it became wealthy, cultured and powerful, thanks to all those foreigners and their money passing through. The world’s first bank was born here—Monte dei Paschi di Siena, in 1472. Before Columbus even set sail!”
“You know everything,” she teased.
“You’ll like this,” he said. “The stripes symbolize the black and white horses of the legendary founders of the city, Senius and his brother Aschius.”
Michael did not mind that Scottie was obsessed with horses. He had no intention of ever trusting his own life to a thousand-pound animal with a brain the size of a walnut. But it was a charming, aristocratic quality in her. An expensive habit for sure, but she came with enough money to support it.
“It looks so old, like something from a fairy tale.”
Yes, he thought, childlike. She’s childlike. He saw that as a good thing. It made him even fonder of her. She needed to be taken care of. “I don’t want to pry,” he said. “But it may be difficult to manage your money from overseas. Did you make arrangements with your bank? It can be complicated, and I’m happy to help.”
Scottie blushed and turned wide blue eyes on him. “I don’t have any money,” she said. She blinked, and there was an awkward moment of silence. “Did you think I did?”
Now he knows, she thought. He stared back at her for a moment, his sleek sealskin eyebrows raised, then looked out the windshield and laughed to himself in a way she found hard to interpret.
The road narrowed as it zigzagged steeply up to the city.
The beauty of their marriage was that she, too, at the moment of saying “I do” felt like she had won the lottery. A Yale man. Handsome. And not some frat-boy bruiser either—Michael was sensitive, with an artistic soul. He was compassionate, having endured the tragedy of losing his brother in the war. True, he was not wealthy—yet. But he was ambitious and hardworking, so success was sure to follow. He had a good job with Ford, that most solid of companies. This was the age when every American family was for the first time buying a car or two, and as Michael had told her, Eisenhower was building interstates so that Americans could go see this land their loved ones had laid down their lives defending. Scottie felt that with Michael, she was literally going places. And fortunately, those places were across the Atlantic, where no one would ask too many questions.
“With the plague came depopulation and poverty, poverty led to military weakness, military weakness led to the city being conquered by its loathed rival city-state Florence, which led to humiliation and more poverty.” They were climbing through olive groves toward the city now. He steered around another donkey cart, this one piled high with firewood.
“That little guy could sure use a pedicure,” she said, craning her head to study the poor beast’s hoofs in the rearview mirror.
So she didn’t have money. He had to admit that was a surprise. He ran over their conversations in his head. Had she lied to him? No. He had made assumptions. Father in oranges in California. Vassar. Nice clothes. Friends with the DuPont girl. She must mean she didn’t have money yet. There would be a trust fund for her. Perhaps it came later, when she turned twenty-five or thirty. It was fine—she was still perfect. Nearly perfect.
Michael felt an urgent need to make her understand the importance of everything they were seeing. How it got this way. How bad things were, but how much better they would soon be. He wanted her to share his love of history.
“Except for the bank, which did fine, Siena pretty much limped into the twentieth century as a market town for poor sharecroppers growing subsistence crops in a not particularly fertile zone of heavy clay soil, vicious mosquitoes and baking summer heat.”
“Baking summer heat. Got it.” She smiled at a little girl on a red bicycle, who stared back at her wide-eyed, as if she were watching a spaceship float past.
“The rest of Italy refers to Tuscans as maledetti, damned, trapped here as if in hell.” He pointed off to the left. “Other than the train station over there, which was decimated, even the Allies pretty much ignored Siena as they bombed their way north, chasing the Germans out of Tuscany.”
She glanced over at him. On the roof at Vassar the night he proposed he told her that his brother Marco had been killed at Monte Cassino in 1944. Michael, the youngest of their parents’ six children, was only twelve at the time. He didn’t seem to want to say more about it then. She wondered if he would now, but he went on blithely. “I saw a picture in an old issue of Life. The Allies paused their tanks in Piazza del Campo just long enough for a photo op before they moved on to more important targets.”
“But they like us, right? The Italians?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “They love us.”
They came to a stop at an intersection with about twenty signs pointing in all different directions. “It says to enter the city at Porta Camollia,” she said, deciphering the directions.
“Sì, signora,” he said with a confident smile. He piloted the Ford Fairlane under the arched gate in the massive city walls, and they motored slowly down Via Banchi di Sopra, a crowd of curious and excited children gathering behind them as if they were movie stars. Scottie looked up at the laundry festooning the narrow streets and said, “These women are going to be so happy when they have dryers.”
“And televisions,” said Michael. “I heard everyone goes to the corner bar when they want to watch something, and there’s only one channel.”
“I can’t believe they still breastfeed their children,” said Scottie.
They shook their heads at how sadly backward things were here. But help was on the way!
“Left here,” Scottie said, squinting at the property manager’s foreign scrawl. There was something about the city being divided into three parts, terzi, but which part were they in now?
They turned, she believed, onto Via di Città, but it wasn’t. It was some other street, which led to an alley. There were no signs. Suddenly her map seemed all wrong, a threatening labyrinth. They turned around, barely, Michael red-faced, the tendons in his neck standing out. She shrank down in her seat, ashamed and a little frightened, as he roared up the narrow street past a laughing old man in a tattered black hat and took a sharp right onto—
“Wait,” Scottie yelped, madly searching the map. “I’m not sure that’s—”
“It must go somewhere,” Michael snarled. Her genial husband was gone, replaced by—who was this man?
Scottie looked up from the map to see brick walls narrowing and arching over them. The sky disappeared and they were plunged into semidarkness. She couldn’t understand how he thought the car was going to fit.
“I think it’s the other way, Prince,” she said gaily.
“Well, I can’t back up,” he snapped, and she was quiet. They inched forward, the web of laundry lines seeming to get lower and lower over them, and the walls closer and closer, until … crunch.
The eagle was firmly lodged between two brick walls.
Michael hit the accelerator hard, but only produced a horrible noise and a smell of burning rubber. He put it in reverse, but got the same result. He smacked the steering wheel with his palms. His formerly beautiful mouth was set in an angry, ugly line.
We’re strangers, she realized.
They couldn’t get out of the car. They had to sit there, avoiding each other’s eyes, waiting for help.
Copyright © 2018 Christina Lynch.
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Christina Lynch’s picaresque journey includes chapters in Chicago and at Harvard, where she was an editor on the Harvard Lampoon. She was the Milan correspondent for W magazine and Women’s Wear Daily, and disappeared for four years in Tuscany. In L.A. she was on the writing staff of Unhappily Ever After; Encore, Encore; The Dead Zone and Wildfire. She now lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. She is the co-author of two novels under the pen name Magnus Flyte. She teaches at College of the Sequoias. The Italian Party is her debut novel under her own name.