‘THE ITALIAN GIRLS‘
Each morning Livia Moretti makes her way from an apartment overlooking Florence’s famous Duomo to a nearby café, where she drinks espresso and reads the newspaper. To the crowds of tourists who pass by, snapping selfies, nothing about Livia will be memorable. She is simply an old lady. They walk on without knowing the part she played in ensuring the future of this beautiful city. And to Livia now, those dark days feel very far away too. But today, when she opens the paper, she sees a name she has not heard for a long time. A name that will bring memories flooding back of Nazi troops marching through the city and the dangers she faced as a young woman, carrying out secret missions for the resistance.
A siren of the silver screen, Isabella Bellucci cultivated all the right connections to ensure her rise to stardom. But when Rome falls to the Nazis, Isabella is suddenly faced with the choice between protecting herself, and all she has worked for, or sacrificing everything to save the man she loves. As the war rages across Europe, a terrible misunderstanding causes the fates of Isabella and Livia to become forever intertwined. And each woman must decide what they’re willing to risk, to protect the ones they hold dear from a brutal enemy.
She started her working life at the BBC and was the first newsreader on Breakfast Television when it launched. She presented a variety of television programmes and worked as a voice over artist.
As a mother of young children Debbie took on producer roles, developing a career in corporate and charity event production. But career number three was lurking in the shadows. She had written stories since childhood, and her first novel – a historical novel about the creation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa – was finally published in 2015.
She has now written six novels, five of which are set in Italy – a country she loves and which she visits each year.
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“This novel is a work of fiction, but it is based on the real-life experiences of Italian women during the Second World War. The character of Livia is an amalgam of two university students in Florence who worked for the Resistance. The other character, Isabella, is based on the life of the film star Maria Denis, who was caught between the Fascist authorities which ran the film industry in Rome, and her devotion to the film director and member of the Resistance, Luchino Visconti.”
PROLOGUE – FLORENCE – 2019
“Livia Moretti stepped out onto the street and closed her eyes against the dazzling brightness.
After the darkness of her top floor apartment, the glare of bright, white light felt almost shocking.”
CHAPTER ONE – CINECITTA STUDIOS, ROME – SEPTEMBER 1941
“Signorina Bellucci, they’re ready for you now.”
It was Mario, the assistant floor manager, poking his head around the make-up room door.”
MEMORABLE LINES FROM THE BOOK
“Livia felt her pulse quicken. She began to turn the pages of the paper, searching for a longer obituary. As she read about Isabella’s life – of her wartime experiences, of the scandals, the trial – she thought back to those days during the war, when trust in Italy was in short supply, betrayal was everywhere and the world went mad”
“Money,” he often said to Livia, “can be a curse as well as a comfort. Better to spend your life making a difference to people’s lives, rather than counting coins in a vault.”
“Back on the train, travelling along the coast towards Nice, Isabella realised that Mimi had been right. She had spent ten years feeling she was entitled to the rewards of her hard work, that the money and position were what she deserved. Her relationships – such as they were – with the Fascist authorities were a necessary evil. But she had been lulled into a sense of false security; she had stopped seeing the world through other people’s eyes and as a result had failed to understand the extent of their suffering. For the first time in her life she felt guilty about her privileged position.”
“Livia felt bereft as she waved goodbye to Elena and her father the following morning. It was unbearable to have been left up in the hill with her mother, out of harm’s way, while down on the plain in Florence, the Resistance was forging ahead. She would never be content with an ordinary life, she realised. The business of running a home, loving a husband, raising a child, would never be enough for her. She yearned for danger, for challenges and excitement, and she was determined to get back to her real existence as soon as possible.”
“He laughed ironically as he pulled up outside her house. He turned to look at her. ‘I don’t think you understand how the real world works, Isabella.’ He gazed at her and touched her cheek. ‘You have lived in the world of make-believe for so long, you can’t see the truth in front of your eyes.”
“She kept their secrets. But someone was about to betray her”
I have read so many World War II books recently, each managing to keep me engaged and intrigued to varying degrees, with some imaginative and emotional storylines and excellent characterisations. The Italian Girls lifted just about every element of its storytelling up a notch to that next level, with the additional connection that the events were genuine and the characters were based on real people.
Author Debbie Rix, had obviously undertaken some meticulous research before putting pen to paper, where she then set about the process of fictionalising this important episode of world and social history, in such a sympathetic and empathetic way, that I became completely immersed and engaged, as if I had been transported back in time and had established a personal and tangible connection with the terrible unfolding events and the reluctant cast of heroes.
There was a real sense of theatre as Debbie set the backdrop and timeline for the story, with her characters bringing the scenes and action to life. Invaded, war torn Italy was described vividly and in great detail, whilst still offering that human connection around the physical and emotional needs of the people to maintain some continuity in everyday life, which made for a page turning story. The sense of a people pushed to desperation, a horrifying yet richly crafted atmosphere of fear, tension and impending doom. Keeping true to the facts, there was a gripping depth and range to the visually descriptive narrative and dialogue, as a beleaguered population chose their sides; fascist or communist, partisan or collaborator, hunter or hunted! Friends, neighbours, colleagues and family divided in the direction their aspirations for a better future for their country should take them. The aura of mistrust hanging heavy in the air, the unseen enemy of everyone. Desperately tragic, yet intensely compelling scenes of brutality, not only from the invading forces, but also between rival partisan factions, which evoked scenes of raw passion and pitted countrymen against one another, were masterfully written with total authority, confidence and emotional perception, which rather than stall the story as they might so easily have done, kept the pace and fluidity of events at just the right level, effortlessly moving the action along towards its profoundly touching and heady climax.
Debbie had obviously studied her characters well and had a clear development plan for them, before committing their complex personalities and behaviours to paper, casting them into the storyline, then allowing them the freedom of narrative and dialogue to morph and transform to full maturity at their own pace, as the unfolding and ever evolving events and relationships dictated. This developed into a tangible division in this diverse character cast. There were those from the Moretti family and their ‘grounded’ community of friends and associates, whose genuine depth of feelings, deep seated and unshakeable beliefs, and profound integrity, made them so easy to invest in. The Bellucci family and their extended cast of film and media colleagues, liked to believe that the world thought they were doing the right thing, however so much of their rhetoric and so many of their actions, were openly superficial and false, that I found myself disconnected from them for most of the time.
There was a great supporting cast of characters, who were well portrayed and defined, arguably the most important of whom was Livia Moretti’s father, Giacomo, a lawyer and steadfast, stalwart supporter of the Resistance. However, the primary focus of the story, were for me personally, the two female protagonists Livia and Isabella. One survived the war and occupation by using her wits, guile and intelligence, the other by means of her beauty, naivety and acting skills. One of them I could connect with, the other barely registered on my scale of importance, only as a nuisance. I guess that their different merits and traits countered one another to some degree, although they were destined to only meet once, and then not under very auspicious circumstances.
Livia is her father’s daughter through and through. She is confident in her abilities and self-sufficiency; tenacious when she has a role or task to fulfil; loyal to her friends, family and everyone she is asked to help; honest to the cause of the Resistance, no matter the pain and suffering she is forced to endure at the hands of the enemy; and deeply devoted to the man she loves. Isabella could not be any more different in her approach to surviving the war. She has an occupation she selfishly doesn’t want to give up because of the benefits it offers, even if that means sucking up to her Fascist backers; she is clearly very insecure and searching for a sense of belonging, which makes many of her actions appear superficial and half-hearted; she has an unhealthy obsession for her director, Vicenzo Lucchese, even when he has made it perfectly clear to her that his interests lie elsewhere; she is so very driven by her emotions and the need for revenge, that she puts many people in danger with her thoughtless words and actions.
However, not all the enemy are bad and not all friends are good and true, as the girls find out for themselves. To reveal the very satisfying end to this story, would be to give too much away. Let’s just say that Debbie Rix has treated this with the same unhurried honesty and compassion she had shown throughout.
A complimentary download of this book for review purposes, was made available by Bookouture and supplied by NetGalley
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 4 out of 5 stars!