The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies: Captivating blend of fact and fiction in this mystery of intrigue, suffering and trauma - book review -
A thrilling tale based on the real history of the courageous women of the resistance who stood up to fascism in European wartime.
In October of 1943, Italy was finally liberated from fascist rule by the Allies and almost immediately declared war on Germany.
But the country was now caught up in a civil war, the Allied battles to drive back the Nazis were brutal and slow, and the northern towns and villages of Tuscany were still very much under the iron grip of German martial law… meaning just one step out of line could be a death sentence.
And it is this cauldron of suspicion and danger – set against the lush and beautiful backdrop of the stunning hills north of Montalcino and the Val d’Orcia – that takes centre stage in the sweeping new novel from bestselling author Dinah Jefferies.
Well-known for her string of atmospheric historical romances, set in some of the world’s most exotic colonial locations during the mid-20th century, The Tuscan Contessa is Jefferies’ first foray into European wartime and it’s a thrilling tale based on the real history of the courageous women of the resistance who stood up to fascism.
Underpinned by extensive research, and tingling with menace, suspense and powerful emotions, this exciting, fast-paced story is full of Jefferies’ exquisitely observed characters, rich period detail, her immaculate sense of time and place, and the beautiful writing that makes her enthralling books such a joy to read.
In the cold winter days of late 1943, Tuscans are living under the Nazis’ martial law and Contessa Sofia de’ Corsi’s life at her peaceful Tuscan mansion set among the olive groves is turned upside down by the sudden arrival of German soldiers.
Her husband Lorenzo is working for the Italian Ministry of Agriculture in Rome and is away from home for long spells. He is secretly passing on information to the Allies but is adamant that Sofia must remain neutral for her own safety, and not get involved in any resistance work.
With the help of covert operations by the Allies, the partisans in Tuscany are starting to fight back even though they are, as yet, disorganised and mainly involved in random acts of sabotage and desperate to help, Sofia agrees to shelter James, a wounded British radio engineer, in her home.
Keeping him hidden from both her husband and the Germans is not easy, and she knows all too well that she is putting all of their lives at risk. But Sofia, elegant and self-possessed, finds an unexpected ally in Maxine Caprioni, a gutsy, fearless Italian-American working as an agent for the Special Operations Executive.
Fiercely independent, Maxine has always promised herself never to fall in love because she regards marriage as ‘entrapment,’ but when she meets a handsome, charismatic partisan named Marco, she soon realises that it’s a promise she can’t keep.
Before long, the two women find themselves ‘clinging to life by their fingertips’ and entangled in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the Nazis. Will they be discovered, and will they both be able to save the ones they love?
Jefferies’ heartbreaking novel is an emotional rollercoaster ride through divided loyalties, unexpected romance, tragedy, betrayal, and heart-stopping danger as we journey with Sofia and Maxine through those final tumultuous years of wartime in Italy.
Paying tribute to the real-life Italian women who were left alone and isolated on the perilous home front, The Tuscan Contessa is both an eye-opening account of their immense bravery as they risked their lives to help the resistance movement, and a compelling story about the power of love, hope and friendship.
There is mystery, intrigue, suffering and trauma as the steely-nerved Sofia and often reckless Maxine play out their deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the ruthless Germans, whose vicious retaliations against partisan action would make even the bravest shudder.
With its captivating blend of fact and fiction, and the Tuscan landscape rendered both breathtakingly beautiful and terrifyingly menacing, this is the perfect escape for long summer evenings.
(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)