British philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said that “Italy and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.” One might think however, that if Russell had read Christina Lynch’s debut novel The Italian Party, perhaps his reflections about Italy being a source of happiness for all, would have been slightly altered.
The story circles around newlyweds Scottie and Michael Messina, who make their way to the Italian city of Sienna in 1956, with plans to settle down and make of the Tuscan region their home and a base for Michael’s tractor business. But from the first pages, it’s clear that something is amiss between the two. The warmth and effusiveness that characterizes most couples in the first days of their marriage is missing. As the story moves on, it’s clear that their union is more of convenience than love, although this fact is unbeknownst to each other.
They had known each other just a short time, and no courtship is entirely honest. It was convenient for Michael that Scottie had been taught that asking questions — as long as they were not too personal or impertinent — rather than offering opinions, made a man feel like he was being listened to and supported. She had been taught that a woman likes to feel beautiful, and a man likes to feel superior.
Although the excerpt may reek terribly of misogyny and patriarchy, we must remember that the novel is set only a few years after World War II, when women had yet to find their voice and the majority of men still believed they unquestionably owned their wives. Scottie and Michael circle each other like two hounds seeking recognition and information, but find that they often fail miserably. In a scene where after Michael’s stubbornness and ignorance of signs leads their flashy new yellow Fairlane to end up trapped between a street’s narrow walls, and in consequence having to be helped out after being mocked and laughed at by locals, Scottie wonders who is this angry and stiff man that has replaced her husband.
Lynch evokes in the novel such a vividness and nostalgia that the words can be read like images in an Italian neorealism film, where we almost expect Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti to play Michael and Scottie if only they were Italian instead of American. In truth, they’re described in the beginning as they are disembarking from the ship as a couple that “seemed to have stepped out of an advertisement for Betty Crocker, Wonder Bread, or capitalism itself.”
So much for Vitti and Mastroianni.
But the description of the landscape and the characters in the city more than makeup for the apparent lack of depth in Michael and Scottie’s physicality: “The green fields they passed were dotted with red poppies. Scottie spotted distant villas tucked into greenery, her eye drawn to the occasional gray or pair of bays grazing in an olive grove.”
As it turns out, Scottie has a wondering eye for more than the landscape. When she meets a local candidate for city mayor, who flirts and comes on to her shamelessly, Scottie is quite compelled to reciprocate if even later she regrets it. Afterwards, she encounters the landlord of the villa the Messinas now call home, a dashing marquis with the name of Carlo Chigi Piccolomini. If this seems like a clichè description for a typical Italian playboy, it becomes even more so when Scottie finds herself mentioning her husband often “as a sort of talisman, a way of warding off the attraction she felt for Carlo.”
It comes at no surprise that later, Scottie thinks to herself, “she wished that she had married Carlo instead,” an undoubtedly foolish thought to have for a man she’s just met and who is, quite married himself. Predictably enough, Scottie and Carlo begin a steamy and passionate affair that is solely based on a dizzying physical and sexual connection, although Scottie often finds herself pretending otherwise.
Should you feel sorry for Michael that his new wife is so soon engaging in an extramarital tryst with an aging Italian marquis, don’t feel too bad. Michael has some doozies of his own that he works hard to keep hidden, including his true reason for being in Italy and where his real interests lay.
As the novel progresses and Scottie’s encounters with Carlo become more inflamed, ironically her connection with Michael seems to grow stronger. When Robertino, a young village boy who is giving Scottie Italian lessons disappears, she begins a frantic search for the only friend she has managed to make since her arrival in Siena.
Soon, Scottie and Michael will be drawn together by more than their marital bond, as they find themselves discovering that this city and its people, may not welcome their presence as much as they thought. She learns this truth from the skeevy flirting candidate for city mayor, when he practically sneers at her in a evident derogatory tone:
You have come to Americanize us, so you may as well know what being an American really means. You love your country, but true love, remember, is the flower of knowledge. If you don’t really know something in its entirety, you can’t really know if you love it or not, can you?
For Scottie, this speaks true also in regards to her relationships with both her husband and her lover, two men whom she really knows nothing about.
Christina Lynch sets up the perfect 1950’s expat novel for the 21st century reader, a story that reads like it was made in the golden days of Cinecittá, where apparent post-war optimism was mixed with the real strain of poverty, injustice and desperation. Michael and Scottie Messina may have come to Italy not knowing the truth about each other, but by the end of the novel, they know more about their marriage, Italy, local politics and their own country than they bargained for.
As Scottie once says to Carlo after a shaking incident by the riverbank, where they come dangerously close to death: “Sometimes it’s better to let go of the rope. And sometimes it’s better to grab it.” With The Italian Party, you’re never quite sure which is the better choice.
But then again, that’s part of the thrill.