Book review: The Rome Affair by Karen Swan

If your secret desire is for a travelling companion who promises mystery, drama and passion, then head off to the Eternal City with master storyteller Karen Swan.

Monday, 17th July 2017, 2:05 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:35 am
The Rome Affair by Karen Swan
The Rome Affair by Karen Swan

No suitcase will be well and truly packed this summer without a copy of Swan’s glorious sizzler nestling amongst the sun hats, shorts and swimwear because Rome – and romance – are firmly on the map of love.

The scent of jasmine in the air, the hum of the city’s scooters zipping through the busy streets and the architectural glories of one of Europe’s most dynamic cities form the seductive backdrop to an idyllic Italian odyssey.

Since her first novel, Players, was published in 2010, former fashion editor Swan has been riding high on the crest of a wave with a string of gorgeous contemporary novels which not only offer fun but also soulful and intelligent escapism.

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And The Rome Affair sees this much-loved author on her best form yet in a rollercoaster story which features two women from two generations – both with secrets to hide – brought together by a quirk of fate in the long, hot days of an eventful summer.

Former barrister Francesca (Cesca) Hackett is loving her new life in Rome, leading tourist groups around the Eternal City and forgetting the ghosts she left behind in London. She also finds time to write an extraordinarily successful blog called The Rome Affair, an online homage to ‘the home of the Ancient World, pecorino and la dolce vita.’

When she finds a stolen designer handbag in her dustbin and discovers it belongs to her elderly grand neighbour who lives in the magnificent palazzo across the square, she finally gets to meet the famed socialite Viscontessa Elena dei Damiani Pignatelli della Mirandola, an American-born heiress who married into the Italian aristocracy.

Though the purse has been stolen, Elena greets the return of the bag with joy because it contains a letter written by her husband on his deathbed 15 years ago but still unopened because ‘to open it would end the conversation somehow.’

Despite the splendour of Elena’s home, Cesca has ‘a sense of an inescapable history within its walls, a past that still ruled the present; of a world that had been built on secrets and lies.’

Mutually intrigued by each other, the two women agree to collaborate on a project in which Cesca will interview Elena and have access to her vast photo collection in order to write her memoirs.

Over the summer, Elena tells her sensational stories and Cesca is transported back to 1974 and the life of Elaine (Laney) Valentine who was born into wealth and privilege in Rhode Island. A noted beauty, no door was closed to her, no man could resist her.

At twenty-six, she was already married to her third husband when she met her love match. But he was the one man she could never have, and all the beauty and money in the world could not change that.

Cesca is enthralled by Elena’s sensational stories but when a priceless diamond ring discovered in an ancient tunnel below the city streets is found to belong to Elena, she begins to suspect a shocking secret at the heart of the old lady’s life…

Swan plays a compelling game as she steeps us in the lives of Elena and Cesca, allowing their stories to unfold in a beautifully descriptive narrative that flips between past and present, America, Greece and Italy, and the truths and lies that have marked out Elena’s tumultuous life.

There is passion and glamour aplenty for romance fans but there is also humour, intrigue, high emotion, gripping twists and turns, and the dark, disturbing shadows that have become a trademark of Swan’s exciting writing.

As always in her summer novels, Swan revels in sweeping us away to some of the world’s most amazing destinations and in The Rome Affair, her breathtakingly atmospheric evocation of this magical city is as much the book’s star attraction as the two enchanting leading ladies.

Ideally read with the sun on your back and a glass in your hand…

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)