Excerpted from Tuscany for Beginners by Imogen Edwards-Jones. Copyright © 2005 by Imogen Edwards-Jones. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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
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!
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?