Penny Feeny on her Italian Novels

I fell in love with Italy on my first visit, as a teenager. I was so smitten I went to live there in my twenties and spent three wonderful unforgettable years in Rome. Later on, when I was in the midst of child-rearing and starting to write short stories, I found that what I enjoyed most was escaping to an Italian setting. It seems I’m not the only one! When my debut novel, That Summer in Ischia, came out in 2011 my (previous) publisher was as startled – and chuffed – as I was at its impact. The book is part romance, part mystery, and partly about coming to terms with a life path that may not turn out as expected, but Italy was the main draw! That was the year of the kindle and the book took off in a big way, topping the charts and becoming Amazon’s bestselling title of the summer. I’m thrilled Aria have reissued it.

I’d set that novel in Ischia because I needed a small, contained location for the purposes of the plot – and because I thought Ischia was one of the prettiest places I’d ever seen. Less glamorous and showy than its famous neighbour, Capri, it has a gentler, more laid-back pace of life. But it was a real indulgence, when I was commissioned to write my second book, The Apartment in Rome, to revive the pleasures of living there. Even though I’d left the city years earlier, my memories of it were incredibly vivid and when I went back for research, I was pleased to find I’d got it right. Not only that but – somewhat freakily – certain incidents I’d already written about in the book actually happened on my visit!

While I was living in Rome, I’d not travelled further south than Ischia. It wasn’t until I was settled in England again that I first went to Sicily and it’s since become my ideal holiday destination. True, I spent my honeymoon there, but I’ve been back several times since and it has never failed to enchant! Sicily is special for all sorts of reasons: its size and perfect location on the Med, its layers of history and different cultures, its amazing food and scenery and, above all, the friendliness of its people. There are very few places where you will be made to feel more welcome. And when you are lying on a crescent of sand with the sea sparkling in one direction and a spectacular view of an ancient temple in the other, you cannot imagine anywhere more tranquil or idyllic. 

My third novel, Secrets in Sicily, is set in the western region, which is much less visited than the east. It’s also known as the ‘wild west’ because the Mafia had a stronger presence here. When an earthquake devasted the valley of Belice in 1968 they famously siphoned off the funding that was meant to rehouse the victims – who then spent a decade living in tents and caravans. In one of the towns affected, Santa Margherita, you can still see the abandoned homes right next door to the new ones, and the ruins feel incredibly atmospheric. It was this sense of atmosphere, of tragedy and drama that I couldn’t shake off after my last trip. There must be so many stories in a place like this, I had to find one to tell: my main character, Lily, only a baby at the time, loses everything in the earthquake –  including her identity. 

I had to set the novel during the 70s and 80s because the action was sparked by a real-life event, but the changes happening in that period were useful to me too. There were major advances in science and technology, for instance, and in women’s emancipation – which made a huge difference if you were from a poor working-class community, like my character, Carlotta. Another advantage was that communication was so much trickier then. No mobiles, no WhatsApp, no social media, no way of getting hold of someone quickly – even the old-fashioned telegrams had gone out of use. You either had to send a letter or ring a landline and hope the person you wanted was in the building. This creates so much scope in the plot for missed opportunities and misunderstandings (and mystery). Romance too, of course, because you can’t set a book on a glorious Mediterranean island without your characters falling in love… I hope you find their journeys inspiring!