The Tuscan Contessa

Written by Dinah Jefferies
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

This novel opens on a shuttered square on a summer evening in 1944; three crows appear, one after the other, a bad omen. Set partly in a walled village in the Val d’Orcia, and partly in occupied Florence and Rome, the novel recounts the wartime experiences of a small community with empathy and compassion. When her husband is away in Rome, the Countess Sofia de’Corsi shelters a wounded British radio operator who is subsequently joined by the feisty Italian-American undercover agent Maxine and her partisan lover.

Jefferies writes beautifully. She has a wonderful sense of place, of summertime explosions of light and colour which puts the reader right into her scene, expressed in details like the feel of bare feet in dry grass and descriptions of simple food the reader can nearly taste. Jefferies doesn’t describe a romantic idyll – the reasons that are driving so many to the emigrant ship are clearly expressed – but her vivid description of quiet lives in an idyllic landscape sharpens the contrast with the horrors that come as Nazi occupation tightens, and where in fairness to those who suffered, Jefferies does not pull her punches. Here, in a community where everyone knows each other, what they do not know is who can be trusted. Nor does anyone, Sofia in particular, know just what he or she is capable of until face to face with danger. The author’s research is soundly done, shaping the plot without weighing it down, and the brief timeline of the war in Italy she provides at the start neatly anchors the plot.