Setting as Character in Kate Furnivall’s The Italian Wife
Set against the backdrop of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist state at the dawn of World War II,The Italian Wife is Kate Furnivall’s eighth book of historical fiction. As Furnivall says, she did not “set out to be a writer.” Originally from Wales, she attended London University, eventually going into publishing and then advertising. It was when her mother died in the year 2000 that she determined to write a book inspired by the true story of her mother and grandmother, the latter a White Russian who fled the Bolsheviks into China (The Russian Concubine). Since then, Furnivall’s bestselling romantic adventures have transported readers to many locales, none so unusual, perhaps, as 1930s Italy, when Benito Mussolini’s Great Scheme to create a new world based on the past glories of ancient Rome fueled his dictatorial grip on his native country. Perfect new towns must be built and marble government buildings must rise, reflecting the glory of the National Fascist Party. Rise, they did, designed with massive arches, columns, and colonnades designed to impress—and to remind people of the power Mussolini held in his hands.
Furnivall says she “likes to put strong, gutsy characters in a richly colourful setting and then test them to the utmost in a plot full of twists and turns.” The Italian Wife offers readers a multilayered, fast-paced plot with an intriguing setting, in this case primarily the fictional town of Bellina, one of Mussolini’s “perfect” towns, where Isabella Berotti lives and works as the only female architect in the office of architects and engineers working on the Bellina project. This assignment has not come easily to Isabella. Not only is she a young widow whose life is laced with emotional and physical pain, but she has also had to overcome the “stigma” of being female in a man’s world. This is a world in which Mussolini has declared a woman’s role in society is to tend her husband and to have a house full of bambini. Daring to fly in the face of Mussolini’s dictates, Isabella, who, since a terrible attack on her and her husband cannot have children, is an unqualified professional success.
The story opens on a sunny market day in Milan in 1922, when a sniper targets Isabella and her Blackshirt husband, Luigi, for murder. Although Isabella survives the bullet that nearly costs her her life, Luigi falls to the cobblestones, dead. Ten years after the unexplained attack, in the autumn of 1932, Isabella is relaxing in the sunshine of the spacious, main piazza in the town of Bellina, when a young woman she has never met approaches her, dragging her little girl by the hand. Would Isabella be so kind as to watch her daughter for a few moments? Every fiber of Isabella’s being rebels, but the mysterious woman strides quickly away, toward the piazza’s clock tower—not, however, before hissing chilling words in Isabella’s ear: “They know who killed your bastard husband.” Who are “they?” The leaders of Mussolini’s Fascist regime—even Mussolini himself, perhaps? Moments later, the woman throws herself from the clock tower and drops to her death in Piazza del Popolo. Shaken by this astonishing turn of events, Isabella hurries the girl, nine-year-old Rosa, to the home Isabella shares with her father. In short order, the carabinieri interrogate Rosa, then whisk the “orphan” away to live and study with the nuns at a nearby convent.
The tragic incident in the piazza on the tenth anniversary of Isabella’s husband’s unsolved murder sends the past flooding in, stirring Isabella’s blood and filling her mind with questions. Her father, who has not forgiven her for marrying a Blackshirt “thug,” advises her to forget the little girl and back away from the volatile situation. This, coupled with his assertion that Isabella will lose her hard-won employment as one of Mussolini’s architects if she doesn’t turn a blind eye to the mystery swirling around her, serves only to intensify her determination to probe the secrets of her own past and to protect Rosa.
Isabella’s deep knowledge and love of architecture allows Furnivall to share the abundance of Mussolini’s architectural beauty with readers, treating them to a unique setting based on an area located just south of Rome called the Pontine Marshes, the Agro Pontino. In the 1930s, the place was a swampland infested with mosquitoes, as it had been for centuries. Mussolini had the land cleared by an army of workmen who lived behind barbed wire in camps where they were poorly fed and were paid a pittance for their labor. Many, perhaps thousands, died working there. Eventually—stripped of vegetation, drained, and furrowed by tractors—the plain was ready for Il Duce’s perfect towns. Between 1932 and 1939, five of them were built. Bellina, the fictional town of The Italian Wife, is based on Latina. As Furnivall says, “Dramatic, grandiose, and beautiful, the buildings and town plan of Latina are a blend of Modernist and Rationalist styles and form a tribute to the vision of Mussolini’s great architects and to the people of Italy.”
For her work-in-progress, Furnivall once again has chosen an Italian setting. “While researching Italy for The Italian Wife, I fell so much in love with the country that I decided to set my next book in Naples in 1945. The war was just over, Naples lay in ruins, and people were starving.” Against this harsh reality, Furnivall’s protagonist, a wood-inlay artist, must “ask herself how far she would go to protect the people she loves. Is murder too far?”
About the contributor: Alana White is a writer of historical fiction and nonfiction living in Nashville, Tennessee. A former member of the board of directors of the Historical Novel Society, she writes reviews and articles for the Historical Novels Review. She is currently at work on the prequel to her debut historical mystery novel, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin. The setting remains Florence during the Italian Renaissance at the time of Guid’Antonio Vespucci and Lorenzo de’ Medici.