The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen
The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen is one of those rare books that will stick with people long after they finish it. The story is based in two time periods, 1944 and 1973, where the former is an historical account of World War II and the latter embodies a mystery.
The novel begins at the end of 1944 when British airman Hugo Langley must parachute out of his crashing plane into German occupied Tuscany Italy. Badly wounded he finds refuge in a monastery and is discovered by one of the villagers, Sophia Bartoli. She aids him in his quest to become well enough to escape to the Allied lines. As time passes both realize that they have fallen in love and plot to escape together. During these scenes WWII is brought to life as readers jump out of the airplane with Hugo, fear the German atrocities with Sophia, and realize how severe are the conditions.
Fast forward to 1973 where Hugo’s daughter Joanna goes through her just deceased father’s old trunk filled with his possessions. In it she finds an unopened letter addressed to Sofia. As Joanna had little knowledge of her father’s wartime life, the revelation it contains startles her. She travels to the small Tuscan hill town of San Salvatore to learn about her father and the time he spent there. The mystery comes into play when everybody in this small-town refuses to acknowledge that Hugo hid near the village.
Besides being an action-packed story that is intense and haunting, Bowen also brings to life the setting where the reader can smell the cooking scents, see the brilliant olive groves, and hear the Italian chatter.
Elise Cooper: How did you come up with this storyline?
Rhys Bowen: I wanted to challenge myself to write in two time periods with parallel stories coming together at the end. I always wanted to write something set in Tuscany because I love it so much. I have been there quite a few times in my life, including two years ago when I was asked to teach an author’s workshop. The World War II aspect came from an account I read where an English airman bailed out of his plane before it crashed into Tuscany. All these bits and pieces come together in this story.
EC: An interesting point you present in the story, Italy was occupied by Germany?
RB: This is a little-known fact. Everyone thinks of the Italians being on the same side as the Germans, but during the middle of the war they switched sides. Then the Germans were brutal and committed atrocities including machine gunning down whole villages. World War II is the last time we had a clear sense of good versus evil. I think it is important we remember it and understand what people went through.
EC: You also discuss the atrocities?
RB: I wanted to show the major risk Sophia took by helping the British airman. She bought danger to herself, her child, and her village. Even though it was at the end of the war the Germans became like vicious dogs that are cornered and deliberately killed people. I hope I showed the many levels of grey during WWII. There were people who did what they had to, people who acted incredibly noble like the Partisans, and people like Cosimo who gained power and money.
EC: What is the theme?
RB: It is about redemption and healing, with food playing an important role. Sophia keeps Hugo alive by bringing food and sacrificing the amounts of food her family had to survive. Then in 1973 Johanna is in a bad place and is healed as she becomes ‘adopted’ by this family who feeds her and teaches her to cook certain Italian foods.
EC: Tuscany seems like a character in the book?
RB: Very much so. I made Paola Rossini, the ‘innkeeper’ Johanna stayed with the classic Italian mother who wants to feed people. The town has a feeling to itself with the high stonewalls and narrow streets. In doing the research, I walked through the market and did wine tastings. I also found out there is a central olive press in the area where bribery allowed for a better time slot. The festival I described in the book happened the last time I was there. It was a procession with bands and banners combining religion and folk culture. Regarding the earthquakes, I wrote about, they can be devastating. Remember in Italy all those stone houses will fall down.
EC: Rumor has it that your last book, In Farleigh Field, is up for a lot of awards?
RB: It is nominated for the Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, the Agatha Award for Cozy Writers, and the Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Award by Left Coast Crime. I feel very honored to be selected for my first stand-alone novel that was not part of a series. It is more historical fiction than mystery.
EC: What about Molly Murphy?
RB: This series is on hold for the moment, since there have been eighteen novels and she is married with a child. It is becoming more and more difficult to find a way to write a story that puts her in danger.
EC: Your next books?
RB: Coming out in August of this year will be Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding. It is a ‘Royal Spyness Mystery’ where Lady Georgina and Darcy plan on getting wed, but after they find a place to live something rotten goes afoot.
Next February I will have a book out called The Healing Garden that takes place during World War I and is based on the Women’s Land Army.
ABOUT THE BOOK
The Tuscan Child
From New York Times bestselling author Rhys Bowen comes a haunting novel about a woman who braves her father’s hidden past to discover his secrets…
In 1944, British bomber pilot Hugo Langley parachuted from his stricken plane into the verdant fields of German-occupied Tuscany. Badly wounded, he found refuge in a ruined monastery and in the arms of Sofia Bartoli. But the love that kindled between them was shaken by an irreversible betrayal.
Nearly thirty years later, Hugo’s estranged daughter, Joanna, has returned home to the English countryside to arrange her father’s funeral. Among his personal effects is an unopened letter addressed to Sofia. In it is a startling revelation.
Still dealing with the emotional wounds of her own personal trauma, Joanna embarks on a healing journey to Tuscany to understand her father’s history—and maybe come to understand herself as well. Joanna soon discovers that some would prefer the past be left undisturbed, but she has come too far to let go of her father’s secrets now… (less)