on 17 October 2011
A great many novelists are drawn to Italy as a subject - a country with fabulous architecture and art, great music, wonderful food and famously beautiful women is a good selling point for novels. Unfortunately, the sheer beauty of Italy can lead writers to idealize it, so that their novels end up rather like tourist guides! This is certainly the case with Deborah Lawrenson's 'The Art of Falling', set in part in World War II and in part in the 1990s in Tuscany. I was initially drawn to the book because of wanting to find out more about the British in Italy in World War II (my grandfather was one of the soldiers who got to Italy for the Anzio landings). However, this is not really a novel about World War II - the war merely forms a dramatic and artistic backdrop to the love affair between Tom, the English soldier, and Giuliana, the young daughter of a Tuscan farmer. There's little sense of the danger and fear of war, and the two darker war episodes (the death of Giuliana's partisan brother Emilio, and the bomb that cripples one of her neighbours) are passed over very quickly. There is no real sense that the war and the experience of being a soldier has affected Tom much (indeed, Lawrenson is so keen to concentrate on the Tom/Giuliana romance that she forgets to invest either character with much personality, at least until the later sections of the book). In the modern section, Isabel's romance with the engineer and academic Matteo seems just too perfect to be true (even the obstacles to their life together turn out to be tiny and are quickly swept away), and the Italy Lawrenson describes, full of warm, ultra-generous and merry people doesn't sound quite like Berlusconi's Italy to me! There's also a lot of loose ends in the book that could have done with an editor encouraging a tidy-up: how, for example, does Giuliana, a girl from a poor background, become a famous botanical illustrator, why has Tom been squirreling money away for most of his adult life when he has a wife and daughter to support, and how does Isabel find it so easy to chuck in her job and life in England to move to Italy (a move that probably serves as encouragement to huge numbers of Britons dreaming of relocating to a lovely country where the sun shines and the food is good!).
This review sounds extremely harsh, possibly too harsh, but the frustrating thing about the book is that I got the feeling Lawrenson really could write rather well, but was limiting herself in her desire to write a romantic novel with huge popular appeal. There were certainly some good bits: the descriptions of Tuscany were wonderful, and some of the 'set pieces' (such as Tom's discussions about Galileo and astronomy with Giuseppe, Giuliana's father, and some of Isabel's chats with Matteo) were very enjoyable. All in all, this novel is a very enjoyable quick 'switch-off' read. But it's definitely Italy seen through rose-tinted spectacles! For a more realistic view of the country, it's better to go to Deidre Madden's 'Remembering Light and Stone' (about a young Irish woman trying to make a living in 1980s Italy) or Francesco Marciano's 'Casa Rossa', tracing the history of Italy in a novel that begins before World War II and ends in the present day.
PS I re-read this novel after a four-year gap, thinking I'd been too harsh the first time, but in fact it came up considerably worse on second reading, largely because the story was so unlikely. Here are a few particular clangers and improbabilities (readers who prefer to avoid spoilers, maybe don't read on):
It is extremely unlikely that a British soldier who saved a child and its mother from a bomb blast, heroic though the action is, would end up with a whole square dedicated to him. British soldiers (and Italians) were performing this sort of courageous action all the time during the final months of World War II, and though the villagers would have admired Tom and been grateful, I think it's very unlikely they'd have spoken of him in such an awe-struck way. And even if they were completely knocked sideways by his bravery, why would they take 50 years to honour him? Surely by that point most of the people who knew him would have died?
It's very odd that Mussolini is barely mentioned in the World War II sections - there must have been a few Italian fascists still lurking around, particularly in the North? And wouldn't the Italians have worried about the puppet fascist government being reinstated?
The portrayal of the Germans is ludicrously simplistic. Not all Germans were heartless villains - and it is definitely not the case that German atrocities in Italy remained unrevealed purely because 'the people didn't want to upset Germany who then wouldn't want to join the EU'. That is nonsense - particularly as Germany was still divided when the EU came into being.
Tom appears to learn completely fluent Italian within days, despite not appearing terrifically bright or interested in books or languages. In reality, I think the conversations with Giuliana would have relied on a lot more sign language and stumbling phrases - particularly as she and her parents may have spoken dialect?
If Massimo Criachi is the same age as Giuliana's father, that puts him in his sixties (or at least late fifties) during World War II. This means that by the time Isabel breezes over to Tuscany in the 1990s Massimo would be well over a hundred, well past the age for chatting up girls (it also means his wife dumped him when he was in his nineties, which seems a trifle sadistic).
Massimo's tricking of the English soldiers would not have resulted in them laughing and complaining of hangovers - bearing in mind that this was war, and that getting engine parts was absolutely essential for transport, they'd have more likely arrested him or even shot him. They certainly wouldn't have thought it was funny.
How on earth does Tom, a mechanic who's seen little action, get promoted to Sergeant (conveniently skipping Lieutenant)? And how does he manage to spend so much time just hanging round Giuliana's family farm? I thought privates only got military promotion for acts of military gallantry in action (as did my grandfather during the Italian campaign). And why in any case has Tom, a strong, tall lad, been recruited as a mechanic rather than a soldier?
The whole disappearance of Tom was ridiculous. Tom, we are endlessly told, is a man of great honour - so why would he have an offshore bank account for secret money, and why would he disappear without making any effort to contact his daughter? And wouldn't Isabel have realized pretty soon that her mother hadn't called the police? And if Tom was so noble, why did he let his sister believe he'd died, and never contact her again? And why, indeed, didn't Patricia just tell Isabel the truth about Tom's vanishing? Wouldn't that in fact have got Isabel more on her side?
If Matteo is so in love with Isabel, why doesn't he tell her straight away about his unusual domestic circumstances?
Tom's bone disease from which he dies (heavily symbolic - he is turning to stone just like the towers he loves) is one that is present from birth, and affects the sufferer from childhood. Victims die at about the age of forty. Therefore for Tom to suddenly develop it in his sixties is extremely unlikely if not impossible. It's also a slow-progressing and very painful disease, so the way that it develops in Lawrenson's account is inaccurate, particularly the conclusion. Also, with only 45 cases of this disease ever diagnosed in the UK Tom's suffering from it at all is pretty unbelievable.
At the time Isabel visits Italy, the economy was in chaos, and I believe Silvio Berlusconi was in charge, and wreaking havoc. So why does no one ever mention this, and why does Italy appear a paradise in every possible way?
In reality, I doubt Isabel would be so cheery and accepting at the end of the book - after all, her father had disappeared and never bothered to get in touch, and her mother had lied to her. I feel, as with Julia Win in 'The Art of Hearing Heartbeats' that rather than suddenly being full of happiness and contentment, she'd be in a terrible mess, and in need of urgent therapy!
So all in all I thought that the book was a lazy romanticism of Italy and of one of World War II's nastiest campaigns. I hasten to add that I enjoyed very much Lawrenson's 'Songs of Blue and Gold', so am not passing judgement on her as a writer in general. But this book definitely didn't deserve the comparisons to 'Birdsong' or 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', and is far too sentimental. I've ordered Francesca Melandri's 'Eva Sleeps' as a tough antidote to romanticizing World War II Italy.