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A Love Story

Written by Marlena de BlasiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Marlena de Blasi


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: August 05, 2008
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-345-51333-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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“At villa Donnafugata, long ago is never very far away,” writes bestselling author Marlena de Blasi of the magnificent if somewhat ruined castle in the mountains of Sicily that she finds, accidentally, one summer while traveling with her husband, Fernando. There de Blasi is befriended by Tosca, the patroness of the villa, an elegant and beautiful woman-of-a-certain-age who recounts her lifelong love story with the last prince of Sicily descended from the French nobles of Anjou.

Sicily is a land of contrasts: grandeur and poverty, beauty and sufferance, illusion and candor. In a luminous and tantalizing voice, That Summer in Sicily re-creates Tosca’s life, from her impoverished childhood to her fairy-tale adoption and initiation into the glittering life of the prince’s palace, to the dawning and recognition of mutual love. But when Prince Leo attempts to better the lives of his peasants, his defiance of the local Mafia’s grim will to maintain the historical imbalance between the haves and the have-nots costs him dearly.

The present-day narrative finds Tosca sharing her considerable inherited wealth with a harmonious society composed of many of the women–now widowed–who once worked the prince’s land alongside their husbands. How the Sicilian widows go about their tasks, care for one another, and celebrate the rituals of a humble, well-lived life is the heart of this book.

Showcasing the same writerly gifts that made bestsellers of A Thousand Days in Venice and A Thousand Days in Tuscany, That Summer in Sicily, and de Blasi’ s marvelous storytelling, remind us that in order to live a rich life, one must embrace both life’s sorrow and its beauty. Here is an epic drama that takes readers from Sicily’s remote mountains to chaotic post-war Palermo, from the intricacies of forbidden love to the havoc wreaked by Sicily’s eternally bewildering culture.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One

Hollyhocks don’t grow in the desert. Yet hundreds and hundreds of their red satin blossoms line a wide stone path to a flung iron gate. I know this is a dream. Through the gate lie astonishing, sweeping gardens. There are roses. Ivory and white and the color of burnt cream, they climb trellises and sprawl in beds, spill and ramble and entwine. Boxwood parterres, hedges of yew, clumps of lavender, fat and tall, and white foxgloves nod among white dahlias, among white peonies. I know that the castle and the roses and the hollyhocks are sun-stroke illusions. The hallucination will pass. We’ll climb back in the car and drive away from this madness of silence and mockery. But while the hallucination endures I want to look over there, where gnarled trunks of wisteria and jasmine and grapevines tent a pergola, make a dark, shady room from whose depths laughter comes. How many days has it been since I’ve heard laughter? Even my own? I walk toward the pergola, and stand at the opening to see a clutch of women in long black dresses who sit ’round an oilclothed table. Tremulous light insists among the leaves, spangles the women’s fingers flurrying over a heap of yellow beans.

“Buongiorno,” they say before we can.

We wish them a good day in return, and somehow the greeting is sufficient. I need nothing more than to look upon these fantastical figures, and they seem to need nothing more than to be at their work. Dreams can be so simple. Though she knows nothing of who we are or what we might want, one of the women–perhaps the eldest– rises and points the way toward the castle. A welcome. It is a long walk past groves of lemons and oranges, an orchard of almond trees, smaller stands of plum and cherry. I hear Fernando saying over and over again, “Where are we? Where in hell are we?”

Imposing, rhapsodical, the castle with the red and yellow roof soars up from a quivering crystalline mist and another garden, stonewalled, draped in more wisteria and more roses and haphazardly grown in flowers and vegetables and herbs, lies before it. In the center of the enclosure, a second covey of black-clad women are at work. Tentatively, we walk through the open gate and they look up from scrubbing chairs and tables, one from the quiet task of slitting the throat of a very small goat, catching its blood in a chipped white basin. Another peers from behind a great pot set over a gas burner resting on a tree stump. She stirs onions in hot fat. There’s the scent of something else that’s good, too. Pig charring over wood. A group sits in a circle to loop the dried stalks of purple garlic into braids. In the low cleft of a gigantic magnolia tree, one woman sits and writes in a black leather book. As did the women at the fountain down in the hamlet, these women softly chant. Seeming neither surprised nor disturbed by our presence, beatifically they greet us, then continue with their work. Their singing. Uncertain but not uncomfortable, we stand there quietly. Every few moments, one whispers to another and they all giggle, their eyes on us. Just as I have dreamed the hollyhocks and the roses and the laughing women shelling beans, surely I dream them. I listen carefully to their chanting and, sotto voce, I am trying to echo the hollow, vacant sounds they make when a woman appears from the far end of the garden.

Neither young nor old, she, too, is in costume, if of a different sort: Wellingtons and jodphurs and a suede riding coat. For a moment she pauses under an oak tree, and the shadows of the leaves make a black lace shawl about her head and shoulders. Magisterially, then, she goes among the women, observing what they do, nodding or shaking her crown of gray braids according to her pleasure, her displeasure. Surely she is Tosca.

“They’re singing of the inevitably unequal proportions of grief and rapture in a life. Did you know that?” asks the woman.

I wonder if the disdain in her bearing, in her voice, is a cover for timidity. As she approaches us, I nearly gasp at her beauty. “Did I know that they were singing about that or do I know that it’s true?” I ask.

“Perhaps I meant both. I’m Tosca Brozzi.”

“Buongiorno, Signora. Noi siamo de Blasi da Venezia.”

“I know. I know. There’ll be time to talk about your journalistic failures at table. I suspect we’ll get ’round to ‘grief and rapture,’ as well. We’ll be sitting down at one. I’ll let you know later if there’s room for you to stay. You can wash and rest in there,” she says, gesturing toward the great black doors of the house or the villa or the mansion. The castle. Whatever it is.

We hesitate, and she says, “Agata is there to show you the way.” Fernando and I look at each other, the look asking, Do you want to stay? Do you want to see this through? He takes my hand and pulls me toward the open doors.

Yet another woman in black is this Agata. She shakes our hands and speaks less assuredly in Italian than did Tosca, mixing it with dialect, but not so thickly that we cannot understand her. Be understood by her. She smiles and chatters, leading the way down a dark corridor lit by the flame of a single candle set in a wall sconce, then opens a door upon a large square room that smells faintly of fresh paint. Yellow walls, a paler yellow sofa, and a pair of blue damask love seats. A mottled gold-framed mirror leans out over a small white marble fireplace. Lavender is massed in great rope-bound bunches and sits in corners on the marble floors, beside the chairs, on a peeling gilt table, in the lap of the hearth.

Si accomodi. Be comfortable.”

She opens a door to a small bathroom and takes fresh towels from a cabinet.

Vi porto un aperitivo tra poco. I’ll bring you an aperitivo in a while.”

When she closes the door, I expect it will be the end of the dream.

“Is this real?” we ask each other at the same moment.

Now we hear our own laughter.

“I don’t know where we are or with whom, but I know we’re safe. We’re in the right place,” Fernando says.

“Journalistic failures. How does she know about . . .”

“Because no one spoke to us doesn’t mean that they don’t speak to one another.”

“Are they all widows out there?”

“I think so.”

“Is this a rest home with a duty roster? Or a commune? I mean, they can’t all be her relatives?”

“No, it’s not a rest home. The women are all much too vibrant.

Some of them are relatively young. I don’t think it’s a commune, either. I don’t know what it is.”

With lemon soap and squares of rough white linen, we scrub our faces and upper bodies, anointing and splashing ourselves with the contents of a jumble of apothecary bottles with hand-wrought labels. Neroli oil, neroli water, lavender water, rose oil. We rub the dust of Sicily from our feet, from our sandals, smooth our hair, button our shirts back in place, and, fearing a deep sleep should we sit, we stand in the freshly painted yellow room and shake our heads in wonder.

“I want to look about the place. I want to see more of it, don’t you?” I say.

“This is a private home. We’ll be shown what they would like us to see, when they would like us to see it. Patience.”

“Let’s go back out to the garden, then. And to the car. Clean shirts and . . .”

“I think we’ll be going back to the car soon enough. After lunch, I mean. I doubt we’ll be staying long afterward.”

“I don’t know what to think of this Tosca. She seemed like an extra from the set of Quo Vadis as she came striding through the garden, bursting in upon the enchantment.”

“Actually, she is more Felliniana. Yes, Fellini would have cast her in La Dolce Vita. But she speaks. I’m indebted to her for that.”

We gather our things and walk back down the candlelit corridor, headed for the garden, when Agata opens a pair of wide carved doors and sweeps her hands in a welcoming gesture. We enter not into a room but into the declining sumptuousness of a regimental hall. Fragments of frescoed gods and goddesses–plump flanked and rolling eyed–hurtle across the high crumbling walls, giving erotic chase up onto the great vault of the ceiling. And under the frenzy of this cupola, three massive tables are set. The underwater silence of the gardens, gently penetrated by the women’s chants and their laughter, has given way to domestic pandemonium. This is Tosca’s dining hall.

Five or six or more of the widows float in and out of the space, porting platters and trays and covered tureens, placing them on the side tables and buffets that line the walls. They all shriek at once, most often addressing someone in the farthest reaches of the hall or in far-flung rooms. Unseen doors are repeatedly slammed; unskilled, unshy hands pound scales on a piano located somewhere on an upper floor. In cussing pursuit of a newborn orphan lamb escaped from the kitchen where it had been brought to be bottle fed, two older men search the premises, discover the tiny creature in peaceful sleep, nearly invisible among the worn cushions on a velvet chair. One of the men places the now-protesting lamb ’round his neck like a scarf, says he’ll carry him back to the kitchen. I want to go to the kitchen.

Keeping a few paces behind the man with the lamb collar, I follow him out of the house, through the walled garden, and past two small beehive-shaped stone outbuildings, one of which houses a wood-burning oven. On a long marble-topped table in front of it, neat rounds of flour-dusted dough have been set to rise in the sun. I have never seen dough set to rise in the sun. I am still inside the dream. Though I want to stop the dream here, at least for a while, to stay with the dough and the sun and the good smells that linger from an earlier bake, I run to catch up with the man and the lamb. Down a wide white graveled path lined with yews, he is heading for what looks like a barn that sits close by the edge of a wheat field. I crunch along the gravel behind him and I know that he knows I am following him. In fact, he half turns every so often and smiles, as though in encouragement. The man and the lamb disappear into the barn, and when I arrive at the threshold of the open doors, I stand before the most splendid kitchen I’ve ever seen.

For this past year–this first year of my life in Italy–I’d cooked in the tin-can Playskool kitchen of Fernando’s bunker by the sea. Or not cooked, as it usually turned out, since my new husband–despite the truth that he knowingly, willfully married an impassioned cook– prefers to dine as he’d always dined: One hundred twenty-five grams of spaghetti cooked halfway to flexibility and slathered with two soupspoonsful of bottled sauce. A salad with no vinegar or salt. And if he was celebrating, a slate-thin cut of a chicken’s breast hardened in a Teflon skillet. A slice of lemon. I rock on the dusty heels of my old boots at the door of paradise.

Yet more of the black-dressed women are at work. Or are they the same black-dressed ones who were under the pergola with the beans or in the walled garden? Do they simply shift geography? No, these are most definitely women I’ve not yet seen. White aprons to the ankle, black scarves wrapped pirate-like, hiding their crowns of braids, exposing faces, exalting black Arab eyes. They all seem to have the same eyes.

Massive dark wood beams hang low over what must be more than two hundred square meters of dark red tiles. Rough plaster walls are washed in the same color as the parched wheat blowing in the field outside the door. The great stone paws of some mythic beast rest on the hearth floors of two stupendous fireplaces that, like flaming sphinxes, crouch at either end of the room. There are three ancient marble sinks, one of them fashioned from a baptismal font. There is an ancient cast-iron, wood-fired stove and a sparkling dark green Aga, the latter seeming to be out of use since the cooks all hover about the old one as well as in the environs of a six-burner gas range. There are no machines in evidence, but rather racks and racks of knives and utensils and culinary battery. Two long worktables are positioned in disparate parts of the space and four or five women are at work behind each one of them. I step inside, say permesso in a voice that no one hears above the collective din. Some look at me and smile; most go about their business. I step farther inside.

Baronial armoires and dressers and cupboards are stashed with porcelain, ceramics, terra-cotta pots and dishes, glassware, silver, copper, pewter, linens, candlesticks, pitchers, serving platters, and stacks and stacks of bowls. The dresser drawers hang open and show linings of old fabric–faded, torn, marked with unsharp knives. In one of the dressers, a deep long drawer is kept open just wide enough to form a perfect vise in which to secure a vertically placed three-kilo round of bronze-crusted, wood-charred bread while a widow carves thick, rough slices of it, letting the crumbs fall in upon the velvet. In another dresser with the same sort of very long drawers, cheeses–already aged and ready for the table–are kept swaddled in white linen. Like a great, tall jewel box, the interior walls and shelves of one armoire– devoted to the keeping of sweets–are upholstered in torn, faded yellow brocade. On the deep shelves sit tins and glass jars and yard-long rectangular tarts spread with jams or chunks of caramelized fruit. On one shelf there are silver trays laid with tiny pastries shaped like peaches or oranges, glazed in barely pink icing and ornamented with perfect stems and leaves cut from candied angelica. I hear my own barely contained gasps of delight as I watch the women ready plates and baskets and trays to be carried to the dining hall. My hands itching to touch something, I keep them behind my back. Keep the hopeful smile upon my face.

Posso aiutarvi? May I help you?” I ask in several ascending registers.

Their efficiency is complete, though, and all the goods are in hand or ensconced upon the folded white cloths that they place over their pirate headdresses to cushion the burden of a wash basket full of bread or one of biscotti or of peaches and plums still nodding on their branches. And the parade begins. Out the door they walk, hips swaying, backs and shoulders arched, breasts thrust. Chanting, praying. Alone, I bring up the rear, try to walk the way they walk, swish my hips under my jeans, hold my head as though an amphora of wine rests there. It feels good. The sun is torrid upon us, the scents of the food are glorious, and as I run my hand along the prickly leaves of the yews lining the white gravel path I feel so grateful to be inside this dream of Sicily.
Marlena de Blasi|Author Q&A

About Marlena de Blasi

Marlena de Blasi - That Summer in Sicily

Photo © Fernando de Blasi

Marlena de Blasi, who has worked as a chef and as a food and wine consultant, lives in Italy, where she plans and conducts gastronomic tours of its various regions. She is the author of four previous memoirs—That Summer in Sicily, A Thousand Days in Venice, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, and The Lady in the Palazzo—as well as three books on the foods of Italy.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Marlena de Blasi   

Random House Reader’s Circle: For readers unfamiliar with your previous books, how did you come to be an expert on Italy and speak so fluently? What was the biggest challenge you encountered in mastering the language? 

Marlena de Blasi:
I’d been studying the regional gastronomic cuisine and the wines of Italy for nearly eighteen years before meeting Fernando. I’d travelled extensively throughout the peninsula on assignment as a food and wine writer for major American newspapers and magazines. And so by the time I met Fernando I could eat and drink rather well in Italian but could speak no more than the language of the table. Nothing else at all. I never had the least will to speak Italian. (My work took me equally often to France and it was the French language that appealed to me and which I studied.) Early on after I’d come to live with Fernando on the fringes of the Adriatic sea–after two or three days I’d say–it was evident that he would not be a patient teacher of language. His concession was to speak louder and slower and I knew that would do not much good at all. I decided it was to the markets where I would go each morning, to jump right into daily Venetian life, and to listen most of all. Everyone learns a language differently and I knew that for me, to hear it was what I needed. It was not only in the markets that I learned but on the boats, in the alleyways, on the bridges, in the shops, on the streets. I simply joined the crowds as though I belonged and soon, or perhaps not so very soon, I did. 

Breakfast wine in the market bars with the fishermen, the farmers, the artisanal food makers, that’s where one learns the most. About language. About many things. Often during the early hours of the day I was the only woman among all those men tilting down their tiny glasses–one after another after another–of cloudy white torbolino. After a while I became one of the boys. And so there was never this great challenge in learning the language, never a formal, studious attempt to be perfect. I think that’s one of the reasons why I have no American accent when I speak in Italian. 

What I never did nor could even consider doing was comfort myself with other Americans. To set myself up in a colony of sorts or in a ghetto of expats. A deadly game. All one accomplishes is isolation from the locals and the constant putting off of speaking the new language. Most horrid of all, one creates the opportunity to lament about the perceived pitfalls of living in a foreign country. Far better to stay at home. 

RHRC: Can you tell us the origin of your nickname, Chou-Chou? 

MdB: Just two weeks before our wedding in Venice, I had to fulfill an assignment for an American magazine to write about a winery in Bandol, in the south of France. Fernando accompanied me. After my work was completed, we decided to wander about for a few days. One very warm October afternoon while walking in Arles, I stopped in a little shop to buy something to tie up my very long hair. The saleswoman pulled out a great velvet box full of barrettes and such and dug about until she came up with a beautiful white taffetacovered elastic, all ruffled and ruched and bearing the Chanel initials in jet stones. She said, “Voila, la chou-chou.” Essentially, chou-chou means ‘little cabbage’ and since the hair ornament–to the French sensibility–looks like a cabbage leaf, that’s what they call it. Fernando liked the sound of it, thought the name suited, and has called me that ever since. 

RHRC: What do you think accounted for the difference in how you and your husband, Fernando, perceived Villa Donnafugata upon your arrival? Were you more enchanted than he was? How did his opinion of Donnafugata change as your time there continued? 

I’m always more enchanted with things than Fernando is. More open to being enchanted, I guess. Surely I sensed immediately that the villa was a place like no other I’d ever been in or seen or even imagined. At first blush, Fernando simply found the mystery of it all off-putting. I would say that our responses were in keeping with our fundamental characters. 

RHRC: Early in That Summer in Sicily you note that you felt “twice expatriated . . . first from America, [then] from Venice.” Can you explain that a bit more? 

Sicily is not really Italy. My second expatriation–or my sense of isolation at the beginning of my stay at the villa–was a recognition that “here is like no other place.” In other words, my newly earned comfort with living in Italy did not serve me in Sicily. I was once again a stranger, a beginner. The truth is I like that sensation. 

RHRC: For your readers unfamiliar with the novels The Red Tent and The Leopard, and the movie Cinema Paradiso, can you explain what it is about Villa Donnafugata that evoked the comparisons? 

How lovely it would be if we were all sitting about under the magnolia tree and had hours to talk about this. However, distilled, The Red Tent illuminates the beauty and the pain of ancient female tribal culture, which in so many instances resonated at the villa through the widows. In modern society, we women too often forget how much alike we are, how much we might help one another. Rather we become entrenched in what have come to be known as feminine intrigues: envy, competition, jealousy (all fear-based responses). Surely women have always behaved as such but maybe we do so now for even less valid motives. I don’t know. What I found so beautiful at the villa was the purity of the affection these women demonstrated to one another. 

The Leopard –celebrated especially this year on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication–is Lampedusa’s brilliant historical novel which quintessentially demonstrates the Sicilian character–perhaps most particularly the decadence of the aristocracy, the cunning of the peasantry. 

When Cosimo says (I shall paraphrase) “There’s always a priest, always a prince, always a girl,” surely Lampedusa came to mind. But more did this idea of continuance, which he portrays in the book. The proof that history repeats and repeats and that character is inexorable. We are all endlessly ourselves. 

As for Cinema Paradiso, it was the widows’ collective enthusiasm, how they found joy in everything from washing their hair to shelling beans, how pleased they were with their lives, that recalled the little village of the film. How sad when a society loses or even misplaces the capacity for joy in simplicity. Of course, that’s when the trouble begins. When we want more than our portion. 

RHRC: You’ve done such a thorough job describing the sights, smells, and tastes of Villa Donnafugata and its surrounding areas. How were you able to so vividly retell your amazing experiences? What was the process like? Can you describe your methods of recall? 

I think that recall–the inclusion of sounds and smells and words, even of light–is a writer’s gift. Perhaps it’s the gift that separates, let’s say, a journalist from a writer. Notes and photos become superfluous. Everything gets saved in some far more spiritual place. A safer place I think. Travelers think to possess a scene, a face, a view, with a photo. Not trusting their own heart and soul, they ‘capture’ things at the expense of truly seeing or feeling them. But surely the creative force enters into recall. What a writer doesn’t remember, he invents. It’s the weaving together of fact and invention which makes for the best storytelling. 

When it comes to food and wine, though, my recall over all these long years of traveling on my stomach has grown to be impeccable. I think I’ve earned the right to say that. 

RHRC: As you wrote, were there characters whose stories you were surprised factored so heavily in the narrative? Were there additional characters whom you met during those weeks about whom you did not write? 

Truth be told, not even half the story of those weeks is in the book. Certainly not half the characters. I could have written an even more complex sort of narrative and followed the events of what I might call the peripheral stories. I chose, rather, to keep the light on Tosca and Leo. I’m tempted to say much more at this point but I’ll leave it at that. Until we’re all under the magnolia tree together. 

RHRC: Tosca says, “In light of the grande bouffe . . . a common, catching sulk prevailed. A whole day’s worth of grievances accumulated . . . passed about like soured milk.” Have you experienced meals like this, where the opulence of the feast paled in comparison to the guests’ disagreeable moods? 

I have rarely had a guest at my table who exhibited a disagreeable mood. My friends are much too intense about their supper to spoil it with even minimal rancor. And since who’s on the chairs is always more important to me than what’s on the table, I choose my guests with care. Dining together is an intimate event. How one holds one’s knife and fork tells volumes. 

In circumstances where I’ve been a guest and my tablemates are disagreeable, my defense is to speak little if at all to them, to construct a bit of a wall about myself and proceed to concentrate on my plate and my glass. I remember a Sunday afternoon last summer at a friend’s nearby country house where I employed this device. I’d found the man who was seated across from me to be a hideous bore. I smiled left and right but never once looked at him. Try as he did to engage me–after all, he was so used to commanding attention–I would not acknowledge him. Later my friend pronounced me uncivil, bad mannered. I can’t recall what else. I told her that all those handles were likely correct but that what mattered most to me was to not be false. 

The opposite has happened more often, though–that is, the combination of terrible food and good company. That’s quite easy to suffer. Push the stuff around your plate, drink a lot, and, as soon as it’s decent, steal away and go to dinner somewhere else. Ah, how often have we done that. 

RHRC: Can you tell us how you felt as Tosca relayed to you her experiences with the Mafia? How did this compare to (or fit into) your understanding of Sicilian history and daily life? 

In the narrative I explain the truth of the great Sicilian triumvirate: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in Sicily is church, state, and Mafia. Even one with a minimum exposure to Sicily understands that the Mafia is an intrinsic part of the very culture of the place; as one explores Sicily, the Mafia does not “come and go” in one’s experience but rather becomes a critical factor–like the weather or the language or the lay of the land. The Mafia is implicit in, organic to– sometimes more overtly, sometimes more covertly–every facet of life; surely one who travels to the island and stays within the confines of the hotel/restaurant/tour-guide experience will not necessarily sense this. On the other hand, he may so dearly want to experience some sort of Mafia sighting that he will misread or mistake even the most innocuous gestures. 

RHRC: Can you tell us about your receiving Tosca’s letter in 2000? Where were you, and how did you feel as you read it? Did you suspect what she revealed to be true while you were at Villa Donnafugata? 

We were living in our interim house in Orvieto, waiting for our ballroom to be reconstructed. I think I would rather not talk about those moments and the sensations therein as I read the letter. Did I suspect what she revealed? Perhaps I did. Perhaps I even knew. Did you as you read the book? 

What I will say is that not even what was revealed composes the whole story. Of that I’m certain. When people ask me why do I think Tosca recounted all she did to me while I was with her, I never say. I know, but I never say–mystery being far more delicious than revelation. 



“An extraordinary tale of passion and love stretching over decades of the twentieth century.”—Booklist

“A marvel . . . a fragrant tale of life and love in the mountains of Sicily.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“This book reads like a suspense novel complete with a surprise ending, and though Tosca’s story is compelling, it’s in de Blasi’s telling of it that the true magic lies.”—Publishers Weekly

“Mesmerizing . . . riveting . . . Brilliantly crafted, the story lingers, thoroughly haunts beyond the final page.”—Providence Journal

“The great Marlena de Blasi writes fairy tales for grown-ups.”—Adriana Trigiani, author of the Big Stone Gap novels

“A taste of old-world Sicily with this story of love among the almond blossoms.”—Christian Science Monitor
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. 1. What were your first impressions of Villa Donnafugata? What kind of place did you think it was–a monastery, a cooking school, an eccentric restaurant, a retreat house, a commune? How did your opinion of the villa’s state and its bustling activity change throughout the story?

 2. Leo’s favorite myth was that of Demeter, goddess of agriculture and motherhood. How does his love of this myth and of the goddess herself reflect his love for Tosca? 

3. In the introduction, Marlena de Blasi writes that “Silence is the admission of mystery” (page xxv). In what ways is this idea repeated throughout Tosca’s story? Do you see this at work in your own world? 

4. Have you ever visited Sicily? If you have, did you find de Blasi’s descriptions matched your memories and experiences? If not, has reading this book inspired you to travel there? 

5. How do you account for the de Blasis being so welcomed by some and so rejected by others at the start of their southern Italy escapade? 

6. Carlotta describes her tribe to de Blasi by saying they are “people who need other people. We are all related by affection. We are part of one another’s history. We are Sicilian” (page 15). Do you have similar feelings for your own community? How do you define community, and what influences help keep that community together? 

7. Carlotta also describes the importance of mealtimes at Donnafugata, saying: “The work is only an intermezzo, un divertimento, to fill the scant hours between meals” (page 15). Where does mealtime fit into your daily schedule? How do you balance the joys of preparing and eating food with the requirements of your day? 8. If you were to live in a commune like Villa Donnafugata, what kind of job do you think you would most prefer or would be best suited for? 

9. One of the residents of Donnafugata states, “Our children don’t know us as we are now. Less do they know us as we were. Oh how I wish they could have known us as we were. Do you think they would recognize their young selves in our young selves?” (page 34). How would you answer her question if applied to your own parents? And if you have children, how do you think they would respond? 

10. Cossetina dies as Viola gives birth (to a daughter she names Cossetina). Have you experienced the close proximity of a death and a birth? How was this perceived among your family and friends? 

11. Don Cosimo says, “Sometimes an ‘unlived’ love can be the best kind of love. One has only to put a face to love to be happy in it” (page 49). What does this phrase mean to you? Have you ever experienced what Don Cosimo experiences for Tosca, loving someone from a distance–even if they are close friends? 

12. Tosca asks Marlena, “What do you suppose has changed in twenty-five years or so? . . . Even if its theater and its motives are being played out in a different geography, there’s still war, isn’t there? Still avidity and hate and violence and fear. Poverty and righteousness are still thriving. As are revolution and arrogance and lies . . . I must tell myself yet again that one need tune in only once in a lifetime to the nightly news to know the chronic story of man” (pages 53—54). In what ways do you agree with la signora? In what ways do your thoughts on current events and on staying informed conflict with hers? How do you think her philosophy was shaped by her experience living in a palace during World War II? 

13. How did you reconcile that the horrors of the war did not penetrate Tosca, as opposed to the horrors she witnessed at the hands of the Mafia? 

14. Tosca asked Leo to allow her to live in the borghetto, because she felt a need to be among people of her own station. Have you ever given up pleasures and comforts for the sake of friends or family? How did you feel about making that sacrifice? 

15. After her mother’s passing, Tosca adopted the role of being her father’s caregiver, a role she had to stop because she wanted to be herself; she did not want to be her mother. Have you ever had to end or change the parameters of a relationship because the role you were filling was meant for another, not for you? 

16. Tosca’s circumstances–her mother’s death, her father’s coldness, her family’s poverty–matured her in remarkable ways that impressed Leo considerably. What circumstances in your own life have been most significant in shaping your character? Are there qualities about you that others can’t help but comment on, as Leo comments on Tosca’s strength and boldness? 

17. Why do you think Mafalda felt it was more important to find their father instead of communing with Tosca, when Tosca had been so much kinder to her than their father? 

18. Mafalda tells Tosca, “I think you could upset . . . the delicious balance of this new life of mine. I can’t let you in. I won’t take the risk. I am not punishing you for your earlier decisions, but neither can I disregard the consequences of those decisions” (page 227). In what ways does she sound like Tosca? Have you ever shared Mafalda’s feelings, having to refrain from inviting someone into your life for fear they would disrupt your own sense of balance? 

19. What do you think Tosca was doing in the time she spent in Palermo, sitting at cafés, wandering the streets, observing the people living their daily lives? What, if anything, do you think she learned in that time, and how do you think it informed her next set of decisions regarding the Maqueda ladies? 

20. What does Mattia’s arrangement with Don Cosimo reveal about the true nature of Sicilian loyalty and dignity? 

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