Book review by Lauren C.
“Overall, a very good read. I would definitely pick up another Derek Hansel novel”
After reading the blurb of Lunch with Mussolini, I was disappointed when the opener introduced me to some old men in a cafe. Where was the female heroine with a vendetta that I was promised?! Nevertheless, I continued on and soon enough, my disappointment was replaced by delight. I was introduced to Cecilia: a brave, literature loving girl, growing up in war-torn, rural Italy.
I had no idea how close this young girl would get to the war, but the fact that this is a story told from an Italian’s point of view, let alone a female one, was enough of a characteristic to make this book stand out from all other war stories I have read in the past. Italy’s role in World War II was a complex and ever changing one and a far cry from the good versus evil we often see in a typical Allies/Nazis tale. Being set in Italy allowed the classic roles to be blurred and made for a different and interesting read, based around what was ultimately a love story.
Cecilia is a complex character, but the reasons for this are obvious. We are exposed to her youth, adolescence and adulthood and all the challenges those periods of life raised for her. Underprivileged, yet bright: in the right environment, she would have flourished and become everything her mother had dreamed she would.
Cecilia’s family life is torn apart due to abuse and the stark injustice of the era is highlighted when Cecilia is cast from her home and blamed. Her world is shattered and she doesn’t understand why. All around her, political feeling and unease is bubbling and the war is getting closer. Although Cecilia’s life moves on to expose her to high-level fascism and further abuse, danger, jealousy and judgment as a result of impressing audiences with her reading ability, it also opens her up to love, experience and excitement. Her life at Villa Carosio exposes her to extreme sides of the war and allows us to see the struggle from both sides of Italy’s allegiances: the fascists and the partisans. Cecilia – due to her intelligence, beauty and bravery – is on the front-line of both, risking her life for the causes of others.
She deals with all her trials with dignity, compartmentalising to keep her head about her and maintain the roles she has to play. The compartmentalisation is probably as a result of her long-standing abuse, and also due to the loss of her family and the betrayal or loss of faith of those people she had come to trust. Being beautiful is somewhat of a curse, with sex forced upon her during her adolescence and remaining central to her teenage years and success as an infiltrator.
Despite all the difficulties Cecilia faces, it was never lost on me that her life without reading, would have been a lot worse. For this, I loved this book.
In addition to Cecilia, we are faced with the unusual storyline of Germans as victims. The detail and depiction of the bombing of Dresden is horrific but excellent. From the introduction of our German characters, we are coaxed to like the privileged Fredreich and Christiane and their cheeky, innocent romance. They become a family affected by the war, like many Allied stories we have seen in the past. The difference is, Fredriech is fighting for Hitler. As the story develops, he becomes more and more concerned about what he is fighting for and worries about the rationale behind the military action he is being asked to take. The Nazi bullying tactics are highlighted and we see the war from an unusual point of view. We still have the classic “Nazi bad guy” in Dietrich, which highlights Fredreich as an even better man.
Eventually, Cecilia is given the love and ending that she deserves, after contemplating and deciding against murder. For that, I was relieved. Her love and happiness is not without bitterness, however, with the reasons behind the death of her beloved mother becoming clear. One can only imagine that her and Fredriech – or Colombina and Henriech – grew older and happier together in a setting far away from war, abuse and betrayal.
My only criticism with the book was the old guys in the cafe. Even with my initial misgivings with the opening of the story, I wasn’t clear why Lucio, Ramon, et al, were needed as a vessel for Cecilia’s story. I felt the ending whereby Lucio misled the others into believing they were the judge and jury as to whether Heinreich should live or die, was an anti climax. I would have preferred the story of Cecilia to have been purer and told from only her point of view, rather than Lucio’s. At times, I found his extent of knowledge and the link between he and Cecilia, tenuous. Throw in the fact that Gancio also knew of the story, and I thought it somewhat unbelievable. Perhaps the summing up by the men was rushed, and that is why I felt as I did. However, I do know that I read over the Lucio storytelling sections as quickly as possible, so that I could get back to the main story.