Starting the day with an excerpt from Paradiso by Francesca Scanacapra.
Italy, 1937. In a tiny village in rural Lombardy, Graziella Ponti is born into a loving family.
Though they are not rich and life is full of challenges, they are content and safe, surrounded by the tightly-knit community of Pieve Santa Clara.
But when the shadow of World War Two falls across the village with the arrival of Nazi soldiers, nothing in young Graziella’s life will ever be the same again.
Paradiso is Graziella’s story. It charts her loves, losses and triumphs as she grows up in post-war Italy, a country in transformation, freed from the shackles of dictatorship yet still gripped by the restraints of the Catholic church.
Paradiso is inspired by true stories told to Francesca Scanacapra by her Italian family and set in locations where she spent much of her childhood. It is a deeply affecting novel which sheds light on the complexity and trauma of Italy’s past and weaves it into the epic tale of an ordinary woman compelled to live in extraordinary times.
This stunning historical read is perfect for fans of Dinah Jeffries, Rhys Bowen, Victoria Hislop, Angela Petch and Heather Morris.
It is 1946 on the outskirts of the tiny village of Pieve Santa Clara in Lombardy, Italy. Graziella Ponti, aged 9, knows nothing but the simplicity of her rural home, a rustic house called Paradiso. Her mother has been asked to pay a visit to the grand mansion at Cascina Marchesini to see about some work and Graziella is very excited about accompanying her. Unbeknown to little Graziella, the Marchesini family are to play an important part in her life. Paradiso and its sequel, Return to Paradiso, tell the story of how their lives come to intertwine.
Extract taken from Chapter 9:
Cascina Marchesini was the largest farm in the area and had been in the family for many generations. The Marchesinis were not like us, or like other people in the village. They were rich.
Signora Marchesini had a motor car. There were very few cars in the village then. It was not unusual to see an ex-military vehicle, or maybe a Fiat Topolino occasionally, but Signora Marchesini’s sleek, ultramarine-blue Alfa Romeo was an extraordinary vision. Its engine made a roaring noise which announced its approach from far away. Rumour had it that she had been given it by Mussolini himself.
As we rounded the curve of the driveway, the Marchesini house came into view. I had never seen a more enormous, extravagant or embellished building, except perhaps for a church. It rose out of the flat farmland with an ostentatious presence, like a monumental terracotta-pink wedding cake. It was three storeys high, with a domed cupola and a turret. A fully grown man could have walked through its front door with another man standing on his shoulders.
‘Be good,’ warned my mother. ‘If you’re spoken to, answer politely. And speak in Italian. No dialect.’
As instructed, we made our way round the side of the house, past rows of white oleanders planted in colossal amphoral pots. The maid, Fiorella, answered the door. ‘Signora Marchesini is waiting for you,’ she said. ‘Follow me.’
My mother and I were led through the kitchen and down a passageway to a grand oval hall. The gaze of numerous ancient portraits followed us. I reached up and took my mother’s hand. I couldn’t help but feel uneasy in the big, grand house.
Signora Marchesini was in the dining room. It was the first time I had seen her at close quarters. She was extraordinarily beautiful. Her dress, which clinched around her waist and caressed her legs as she moved, was the same shade of red as her lipstick. She wore silk stockings and patent shoes with little block heels. I was mesmerised.
I wished that my mother could have such a lovely dress and shoes. I wondered how rich you had to be to dress like that on an ordinary July afternoon, and whether Signora Marchesini had other, even more beautiful dresses. Perhaps she even had other pairs of shoes.
I could smell her too. She was encircled in an aura of rose, lily, face powder and other delicious scents which were unknown to me at that time, but which made me want to breathe the air around her and absorb her.
‘Thank you for coming so promptly, Signora Ponti,’ said Signora Marchesini to my mother. Even her voice was beautiful.
I was completely entranced and could not stop gazing at this vision of utter loveliness. She didn’t acknowledge me at all.
My daze was broken by Mamma. ‘Graziella,’ she said sharply. ‘Don’t stare.’
Signora Marchesini glanced at me, giving me the briefest but most intense of examinations.
‘Would your daughter prefer to go outside?’ she asked in a tone which was more an instruction than a question.
‘Go and play in the garden, Graziella. And don’t get dirty,’ said my mother.
The garden was walled and laid out in a series of flowerbeds, lawns and paths with ornamental trees planted in symmetrical patterns. In its centre was a splendid fountain with spouts shaped like fish. It was unlike any garden I had ever seen. Our garden at Paradiso smelled of tomatoes and soil. The Marchesini garden was an intoxicating mixture of floral scents, like Signora Marchesini’s perfume.
I was barely a twenty-minute bicycle ride from my house, but Cascina Marchesini was a whole other world.
Francesca Scanacapra was born in Italy to an English mother and Italian father, and her childhood was spent living between England and Italy. Her adult life has been somewhat nomadic and she has pursued an eclectic mixture of career paths, including working as a technical translator between Italian, English, Spanish and French, a gym owner in Spain, an estate agent in France, a property developer in France and Senegal, and a teacher. Francesca lives in Dorset and currently works as a builder with her husband. She has two children.