Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith

Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith is a virtual vacation to one of my favorite places in the world. Years ago my parents rented an Umbrian villa to celebrate their 40th anniversary with their children and grandchildren, and reading this sumptuous novel recalls the savory meals, the ancient villages, and the gorgeous northern Italian countryside, albeit with a murky past. 

Hugh Fisher is mourning the double loss of his wife and then his Italian mother when he returns to Valetto to claim his inheritance. The only hitch is Elisa Tomassi, an award winning chef from Milan, is squatting in the cottage where young Hugh had spent happy summers with his enigmatic mother. His grandfather joined the resistance and disappeared during World War II, leaving ambiguities about his crumbling estate. To resolve their competing claims on the small cottage, Hugh and Elisa must convince their elderly relatives to share their traumatic secrets, all while consuming copious amounts of hand rolled pasta, foraged fungus, grated cheese, and of course, vino rosso.

I brought Return to Valetto to an island cottage near my home in Maine, and it was exactly the right type of vacation reading: an engrossing story with moral ambiguities in a lovely setting with a touch of romance. Although the author is a man, the strongest characters are women who steer the narrative. The history professor protagonist is just along for a ride, literally letting everyone else drive him around and feed him like a child, until the atrocities of the past prod him out of his lethargy. Loyal Hugh is a sympathetic character, but his lack of engagement and agency is tiring to the other characters and to the reader. That was my only criticism of this otherwise well crafted tale about how much the past can overshadow the present.

The best character of all was the crumbling village itself. The vivid description of a stairway left dangling into a ravine after an earthquake destroyed half the town was so convincing that I was surprised to discover that Valetto didn't exist beyond the pages of this novel. The author is Australian American and not Italian, but Dominic Smith seems to have done his research well. Return to Valetto tasted like the wild truffles of Umbria at a fraction of the cost. 

Reviewer's Disclosure: The publisher sent me a galley in exchange for an honest review. I enjoyed it so much I bought a copy from Book Culture to send to my dad for Father's Day since I inherited my love of Italy and fine dining from him. Return to Valetto was published in the USA yesterday.

Happy Father's Day!

my parents in Italy


thecuecard said...

Nice post and great gift for your Dad. The novel sounds good and I'm always game for novels set in Italy. In fact we are headed on a trip to Puglia in the fall yay! Earlier in the year I finished Sarah Winman's novel Still Life which is set partly in Tuscany. I'll add Smith's novel to my TBR. I heard the author speak in 2019 in Portland, Oregon at the writer's conference on his novel The Electric Hotel ... he really gets into the details of historical tales

Sarah Laurence said...

Cue, this is my first Smith novel, but it won't be my last. How fortunate you were to hear him speak! I'll check out Still Life as well. To be honest, I think the photos on this post are from Tuscany, not Umbria, but close enough.

troutbirder said...

Trout Burger evergreens assisted living in Spring Valley in Minnesota i hope to catch up with some book reviews once again as I have time andDoing quite wellSince myAlzheimer'shas slowed down considerably. I had to sell my house recently so I can't complain too much where I'm now living.

Sarah Laurence said...

Troutbirder, great to hear that you're settled into your new assisted living home and back to reviews! Wishing you well!