Two Women in Rome

Written by Elizabeth Buchan
Review by Edward James

The two women of the title are British expatriates living in Rome; Lottie lives there in the near-present, and Nina lives there in the 1970s. Lottie is an archivist, and in the course of her work she comes upon documents relating to Nina’s murder in 1978. As she pursues her research she comes to identify with Nina and finds echoes of Nina’s unhappy life in her own.

This is basically the plot of scores of dual-narrative novels. There seems to be scarcely a heroine who is not researching another woman’s life (or perhaps her own early life) and finding solace from her current woes. Two Women in Rome is, however, more complex and multi-layered than most. There are two love stories, both intense, sensual and troubled, a whodunnit, a spy story and a political thriller. The complexities are sometimes difficult to handle, but one keeps turning the pages. I would have liked more of the political background to Italy in the 1970s—what was the secret army? —but Buchan is rightly shy of info-dumping.

The book is strong on atmosphere. Buchan knows her Rome, and through her we become an impressionable newcomer, basking in its tumult of sights, sounds and scents. Better than most dual narratives, with narrative drive and a great sense of place.