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  • Tuscany for Beginners
  • Written by Imogen Edwards-Jones
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  • Written by Imogen Edwards-Jones
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A Novel

Written by Imogen Edwards-JonesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Imogen Edwards-Jones

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List Price: $9.99

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On Sale: December 10, 2008
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49219-7
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Oh, the dream of escaping to Italy–and the nightmare of reality. . . .

Belinda Smith has found her very own Tuscan valley in the sun, having abandoned a dreary cheating husband and an even drearier English town. Running Casa Mia, her own too, too divine bed and breakfast, everything is coming up sunflowers and olive groves for La Contessa of the Valley. Life couldn’t be more perfecto!

Until, that is, the arrival of Lauren–a beautiful, feisty Wall Street ball-breaker who has the gall to announce her plans to open a new B&B. A place just like Belinda’s–only much more glamorous. Even worse, Lauren, whose charmingly calculated smile Belinda recognizes as quite like her own, threatens Belinda’s existence as the epicenter of all things ex-patriot in the valley.

Have Belinda’s fabulous days of ruling supreme in this corner of the world come to an end? Will the carnivorous Lauren consume Belinda’s dreams al fresco? Will Lauren’s gorgeous son Kyle steal Belinda’s lovely, overworked daughter away from home and hearth (who will do the cleaning, for God’s sake?). War has come to lovely Tuscany–let the fur and focaccia fly!

Excerpt

ITALY—TUSCANY

This is the beginning of my fifth season in questo bellissimo valley—Val di Santa Caterina, Toscana—and although I have been here for quite a while, it is only now that I’m feeling quite pronto to write a diary and share my thoughts, and my ideas, and the little life lessons that I have gleaned from my very own corner of Paradiso.

And what a corner of Paradiso it is! Val di Santa Caterina is one of those terribly beautiful unspoiled valleys in Toscana where the locals still farm, the land is still worked, and the Italians continue to live a simple peasant existence like they have done for hundreds of years. It is just too, too divine!

We are also lucky enough to have a small, yet vibrant, expat community in the area, which—thankfully—consists mainly of us English, although there are a few Australians, some Belgians (who keep very much to themselves) and the odd German (whom everyone tries to avoid at all costs!). But the social life is mainly made up of us Brits, who are nearly all writers and painters or just artists in general.

My little spot, Casa Mia, is a very large, converted gentleman’s country villa and has to be one of the most fortunato finds of one’s lifetime! Perched on top of the hill, handily near the road, it has been sensitively restored by an English developer, who has been living near Florence for seven years and very much knew what he was doing. With new terraces and a new sun-soaked terra-cotta roof, Casa Mia has vistas galore and none of the drawbacks of any of those very old properties. Also, because I used a developer, I was lucky enough to avoid all that well-known Italian inefficiency when it comes to doing up a house. I mean, why put oneself through the terrible hell of carpenters not arriving, plumbers overcharging, and all that, when you can get a place, move in more or less immediately, and set about putting in those little touches that make a villa a home?

And so, for the past few years I have enjoyed welcoming guests into my lovely casa. It gives me great joy to share my little corner of Paradiso with visitors from all over the world. I enjoy being generous with my views, my villa, my little bit of heaven on earth where the birds sing and the sunflowers grow.

As I said, this is my fifth season, and I must confess that I feel ever so much at home here. It is lovely, really, how much the people have taken me to their hearts. I am very much part of the comunità. Some would say an essential part of it! At the risk of blowing my own trumpet (which would be very unattractive), I can safely say that nothing really happens here without me or my highly motivational involvement! Quite what everyone did before I arrived, I shall never know!

Only last night at supper at Giovanna’s (our local ristorante), Derek took my hand and announced to the table that from now on everyone should call me “La Contessa of the Valley.” It was terribly sweet of him, but after the way I ran last year’s panto, I did rather reluctantly have to agree. In fact, the more we discussed my achievements in the valley, the more we all agreed that it was such a terribly good name. So “La Contessa di Val di Santa Caterina” it is, then! What a mouthful! I wonder if it will ever catch on?

But there are more pressing matters at hand. My daughter is arriving this afternoon. There is much to do. Casa Mia is in need of a good spring cleaning before my summer visitors arrive. I am so used to all of this now—being a hostess is more or less second nature to me. Making the beds, scrubbing the floors, clearing the terraces, and tidying the drive are all taken care of by my local help—which, of course, frees me to make things look authentically Italian, placing a bowl of lemons here, a bunch of wild flowers gleaned from the roadside there. Perfecto! Quite frankly, I’m so settled here I find it quite hard to think of my life before I left the U.K. behind, and made the heavenly move to Toscana. Home of olives, sunflowers, and tobacco. Plus, let’s not forget, buonissimo cooking!

Bruschette di Casa Mia

I like to call these my little slices of toasted sunshine. I picked up this little gem of an idea from Victor, who runs the divine café at the railway station, and who charmed me with his perfect En- glish and splendid coffee when I first arrived here all those years ago.

Take four hearty slices of fabulously rustico Italian bread— handmade by your local baker. For those of you unfortunate enough not to live in Italy, and who do not have a local baker anymore due to Tesco and Sainsbury taking over everywhere, Marks & Spencer bread will do. But do try and source your pane from somewhere a little bit special as—take it from me—you really will notice the difference.

Lightly toast the slices. Then rub with fresh garlic (from your own garden would, of course, be preferable). Drizzle on the extra- virgin olive oil. Cover in tube of tomato paste. Grill until ready.

Serve on a sun-blushed terrace in a simpatico atmosphere.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Imogen Edwards-Jones

Q: Tuscany for Beginners is told from two vantage points—we hear Belinda’s version of the events that unfold in Val di Santa Caterina, and then we get the “real” story.How did you decide to tell the story with these alternating narratives?

A: I like the idea of artifice, of lying, not only to everyone else, but also to one’s self. A certain type of Brit is very good at putting a gloss or a brave face on things. And Belinda typifies this. She is a woman who is obsessed with the idea of not losing face. She has been humiliated once before and she is determined that it will not happen again. I thought it would be more interesting, and hopefully amusing, for the reader to be able to see this right from the start. Belinda tells lies all the time, and she is kidding no one, least of all her audience.

Q:You’re an Englishwoman who spends a fair amount of time in Tuscany, right? Is that how you were able to capture the details of the Italian people and the towns in Tuscany so authentically? How much of what you write about comes from your own experience in Italy?

A: My mother has lived in Italy for nearly twenty years, and I spent most of my late teens and early twenties traveling back and forth, so I have experienced first hand quite a lot of what Tuscany has to offer. Hopefully all this stood me in good stead when it came to writing the book, as most of the characters, festivals, and fantastic food mentioned are inspired by the people and places I have come across. Particularly the handsome Gianfranco Bianchi—there is someone rather like him near my
mother’s place!

Q:Was the character of Belinda inspired by an experience of a less-than-pleasant B-and-B owner? I’ve been told that Italian B-and-Bs are wonderful.Are there any you can recommend in Tuscany? Any Italian wine recommendations?

A: Fortunately I have never met anyone running a B-and-B as unpleasantly as Belinda.The inspiration for her was the idea of a misanthrope who is forced to work in the service industry. Italian B-and-Bs are indeed wonderful, and I could heartily recommend my mother’s (www.stoppiacce.com), which is in the hills outside Cortona. As for wine,Tignanello is delicious, if rather expensive, or you could try a Montepuliciano.

Q: Is Val di Santa Caterina a real town in Italy? If not, is it based on a real town?

A:Thankfully, it is not a real valley, nor is it based on any place.

Q: Tuscany for Beginners is almost a parody of the stereotypes that exist of people from other countries. Belinda is a bit cold, unwilling (or unable) to express her inner feelings and very aware of the image she conveys; Lauren makes a big, brash, very American-like entrance and wants to fight her way to the top. Were you conscious of these common stereotypes as you wrote, or did the characters come to you fully formed, warts and all? Do you think there’s anything to the stereotypes of Americans, the Brits, and the Italians?

A:We all conform to certain stereotypes.The English are usually polite and love to form a queue; the Americans tend to not speak terribly quietly; the Italians, more often than not, produce a nice dinner; and the Japanese photograph everything. Obviously there are many exceptions to these rules, but when it comes to writing comedy, stereotypes are essential. Grotesques are usually much more amusing than well-rounded, reasonable people.

Q: Let’s project into the future a bit. Is Belinda still running the B-and-B? And has her Italian improved?

A:
Belinda’s Italian will never improve, as she is convinced that she speaks it fluently already. She will most certainly be running her B-and-B but she will have updated it a bit, having stolen as many ideas as she could from Lauren.

Q: How about Mary and Kyle? Have you thought at all about what happens to these characters in the years to come? What about a sequel?

A: I would love to do a sequel, as I did rather fall in love with the characters when I was writing the book, particularly Belinda, whose company I enjoyed hugely.As for Kyle and Mary, I am not sure.Kyle is Mary’s first true love, but I have a feeling that Kyle is a little more worldly. I would love to write a sequel if only to see exactly what happened to the two of them.

Q: There’s a great comic flair throughout Tuscany for Beginners—many tongue-in-cheek, laugh-out-loud moments. Have you always written comic novels? Are there any comic novelists that you admire or were influenced by? Who are your favorite authors?

A:You are very kind! Tuscany for Beginners is my fourth book in a line of, hopefully, comic novels. I have always favored comedy over any other genre, as I like to be entertained when I read. I loved Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life when I read it a long while back, I think it is hilarious. But the greatest influence for this novel was E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books.They are little works of genius not too dissimilar to Evelyn Waugh’s. I have even set the initial opening scene in Tilling, which is the small town Benson writes about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a nonfiction book at the moment that, as an ex-journalist, I tend to do from time to time. But I have another novel up my sleeve that I am planning to start toward the middle of this year. I also have a baby to deliver at the end of May!

Praise

Praise

“Absolutely hysterical. I could not put it down.”
–Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The opening scene of the novel paints a very sympathetic picture of Belinda—a woman who sets out on an adventure in Tuscany after she has been humiliated by her cheating husband and so-called friend. Do you understand this scene differently after getting to know Belinda a little better?

2. After reading the novel, what do you think of the title Tuscany for Beginners? What advice would you give a friend looking to stay at a bed-and-breakfast in Tuscany?

3. Inspired by Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, Belinda flees England in order to pursue her dream of opening a bed-and-breakfast in Tuscany. She insists upon creating the ideal Italian retreat for herself and her guests.How well do you think she achieves this? What are some of the ways she creates this experience for them? How is her experience of Italy more about being English in Italy than about how Italians live? In what ways is Belinda more English than she might want to admit?

4. Even when her business was not doing well, Belinda still insisted on turning away guests that were not up to her high standards. What do you think about her method of guest selection? Why do you think she was so discriminating?

5. Upon first appraisal, many things are not what they appear to be in this novel. Explore how your initial impression of Belinda, Mary, Lauren, and Kyle evolved as the novel unfolded. How do you think each of the characters would describe themselves and one another? Do these descriptions differ from how you would characterize them?

6. Explore the relationship between Belinda and Mary and between Kyle and Lauren. In what ways are they different, and in what ways are they alike? Why do you think Mary and Kyle fell in love so easily? Were you surprised that Lauren and Belinda were not aware of the love affair occurring right under their noses?

7. There is no shortage of food in the novel, and it reveals a lot about the characters.What do Belinda’s recipes reveal about her cooking skills and knowledge of Italian cuisine?

8. On the surface, Belinda and Lauren are almost polar opposites, but they also have much in common. Explore the ways in which the two women are similar.Why do you think they felt so much hostility toward each other? Do you feel that one is more to blame? Why or why not?

9. How is Belinda’s life in the Tuscan countryside portrayed before Lauren’s arrival? How does this event change the way in which you think of Belinda?

10. What do you think of Belinda’s nickname,“the Contessa”? Is it well deserved?

11. What do you think of Belinda’s diary entries, her aperçus? As the story progresses, how do they add to your understanding of her character? Compare Belinda’s portrait of her life with the way she is described by the narrator.

12. Belinda and her friends in the valley have a lot of stereotypes about Americans. What are some of these? How does Lauren compare to these stereotypes? What are some of the stereotypes about the Italians, the Australians, and any other nationality that come to Belinda’s valley?

13. Next time you’re in Tuscany, where are you going to stay?


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