Kate Furnivall The Italian Wife

ISBN 13: 9780751550764

The Italian Wife

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9780751550764: The Italian Wife

The New York Times bestselling author of The Russian Concubine returns with a stunning new novel set in Mussolini’s Italy.

Isabella Berotti is an architect, helping to create showpieces that will reflect the glory of her country’s Fascist leaders. She is not a deeply political sort, but designing these buildings of grandiose beauty helps her forget about the pain she’s felt since her husband was murdered years ago. One of her greatest accomplishments is the clock tower in the town of Bellina, outside Rome.

But as she is admiring it one day, a woman approaches her, asking her to watch her ten-year-old daughter. Minutes later, to Isabella’s horror, the woman leaps to her death from that very clock tower.

There are photos of the woman right after the suicide, taken by Roberto Falco. A propaganda photographer for Il Duce, he is expected to show his nation in the most flattering light. But what Roberto and Isabella have seen reflects a more brutal reality, and in a place where everyone is watching and friends turn on friends to save themselves, their decision to take a closer look may be a dangerous mistake.

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About the Author:

Kate Furnivall has worked in publishing and television advertising, and is the New York Times bestselling author of The Far Side of the Sun, Shadows on the Nile, The White Pearl, The Jewel of St. Petersburg, The Girl from Junchow, The Red Scarf, and The Russian Concubine. 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Chapter One

MILAN 1922

I didn’t know I was going to die that warm October day in Milan. If I’d known, I’d have done things differently. Of course I would. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have died.

But I was nineteen years old and believed I was immortal. I had no idea that life, which seemed so snug and warm in my grasp, could be snatched away at any moment, though I did nothing more than turn my head for a split second to inspect a market stall.

A gunshot rang out. The sound of it ricocheted off the ancient pink stone of the market square, making my ears ring and shoppers scatter in panic across the cobbles. It was market day and I had come to idle away an hour among the stalls, passing the time of day with neighbors and exchanging news with friends. Believing that an hour of life was something I could fritter away without thought.

I picked and prodded at the colorful piles of fruit and vegetables on offer, handling the warm leathery pomegranates as I chose the ripest one and inhaled the musty scent of the skin of deep purple aubergines. All around me stalls overflowed with the vibrant yellows and greens and rich scarlets that are the colors of life.

How could I know I was about to lose mine?

If it had happened in some stinking back alleyway in a rough district of Milan, I’d have understood. I wouldn’t have liked it, but I’d have understood. Or on one of Mussolini’s fast new autostrade where cars race each other, as if desperate to leap into the arms of death. There it would make sense. But not here. Not on the lazy warm cobblestones of my home district. Not with my belly swollen with child and a piece of pecorino cheese salty in my mouth.

“Take a bite, Isabella,” Arturo Cribori called out from behind his cheese stall, waggling his black eyebrows at me suggestively.

He sliced off a tiny triangle of pecorino for me to taste. I smiled at him and laughed.

Thinking back on it now, I listen to that carefree laugh and it makes me want to cry. It was the last laugh of the person I was back then. The laugh of a girl who believed she had everything she needed to make her happy for the rest of her life—a handsome husband, a baby growing inside her, a three-room city apartment with a set of silver spoons in pride of place on the sideboard, a future that stretched ahead of her on rails as shiny as Italy’s new train tracks. It was the laugh of a person who still believed in goodness. I remember that girl dimly. I touch her lustrous raven’s-wing hair and my chest aches for her.

The real reason I had come to the street market was to stroll between the rows of stalls alongside Luigi, showing off my fine husband and the bambino growing inside me, displaying them proudly for all to admire. I paused to taste the cheese, I remember that. I didn’t look out at the houses surrounding the square or spare a glance for the upstairs windows overlooking the stalls. Why should I?

If I had looked up, things might have been different.

I remember looking across at Luigi, seeking him out in the bustling crowd. So many people were milling around the stalls, laughing and arguing, haggling over the price of yellow peppers or the weight of a sack of potatoes, but my husband was easy to spot. He was half a head taller than anyone else and possessed the handsome features of a Roman senator, though in fact he came from generations of farming stock. “I’m a fine stud bull,” he would laugh, and stroke my swollen belly.

Luigi was a powerful presence in his crisp Blackshirt militia uniform. Men stood back for him and women’s eyes followed him like fawns. Not just the young signorinas tossing their dark manes at him, but the black-clad matrons as well and the loudmouthed peasants in the stalls, with bosoms as large and ripe as their melons. They all let their eyes linger on Luigi Berotti. I was proud of him. So proud it almost choked me at times. Stupid, I know, but that’s how it was. Even though he raised a hand to me after he’d taken a grappa too many, I saw no wrong in him.

I know better now.

The first shot came from nowhere, ripping through the market. It sent stallholders ducking behind their wares, and a tethered dog howled. The loud crack of the shot sent a wave of pigeons wheeling up from the campanile into the flat blue Italian sky. I swung around from a salami stall in time to see Luigi’s dark head slide from view. It lurched forward as if he’d spotted a five-hundred-lire note lying on the ground. I screamed. It was a vile sound dragged up from deep inside me and scoured my throat raw.

A man seized my wrist. “Are you hurt?”

It was my father. I should have thanked him, this father showing concern for his only daughter amid the whirlwind of fear that swept through the market. But I didn’t. Wordlessly I dragged my arm free and hurled myself into the huddle of people crouching on the cobbles in front of a stall selling embroidered shawls. Their eyes were huge with panic. Heads whipped back and forth, seeking the hand with the gun. But they didn’t run. Those brave people stayed with the limp figure on the ground. Others ran and I couldn’t blame them. They had families. They had loved ones. They had lives to live. Why should they stay behind to stop my husband from bleeding to death on the cobbles?

Luigi’s dark eyes were frozen open like a doll’s and gazing blindly up at the sun as if he could outstare it. In that tiny fraction of time before the second shot rang out, I saw the slack hang of his full lips that had always been so muscular in seizing mine, and I knew what it meant. I saw scarlet raindrops sparkling on the small hairs of his eyebrows. I saw his strong hand curled up like a claw. And in the center of his big bull chest I saw a hole in his shirt. The blood barely showed against the color of its material, but it made the blackness of the shirt glisten.

I snatched a shawl from the deserted stall. I would stop the bleeding with it. I would stop it and he would live. He must live. My Luigi. My husband. His child kicked fiercely inside me to urge me on.

“Luigi!”

I called his name to summon him back to me.

“Luigi Berotti!”

I didn’t hear the second shot. All I knew was that my sandal had left a perfect imprint in my husband’s blood on the ground. I was horrified by it. I saw it as I bent forward to kneel at his side and that was when the backache that had nagged at me all day, where the baby was pressing on a nerve, suddenly flared into a white blinding pain. I thought it was my bones cracking with grief.

Before I hit the ground, I was dead.

“Is she breathing?”

I woke. Nothing worked. Not my eyelids. Not my limbs. My tongue lay lifeless on the base of my mouth. I tried to cry out, but the silence in my head remained absolute while pain wrapped itself around my body.

“What in God’s name is the matter with you, nurse? You’re meant to be monitoring her airways.”

“Yes, Dr. Cantini, I’m sorry, I was just checking her . . .”

“Sorry? Where will sorry get you when she’s dead and cold on the slab? Tell me that, nurse.”

The doctor’s voice was loud and curt to the point of rudeness, the voice of a man who believed in the divine right of the medical profession. I knew that tone. He’d used it on me at times. It was the tone he resorted to when trying to hide fear. Dr. Cantini is my father. If my father was afraid, I knew I was in trouble.

Help me, Papa. Hold my hand.

But the words remained ice cold inside my head.

“Isabella, can you hear me?”

My father’s voice sounded close, as if he were leaning over me. I could picture him, his mustache black and bristling, his blue eyes behind his spectacles abandoning any pretense of professional calm. His daughter was dying.

“Isabella!”

Was he holding my hand? I couldn’t tell. I willed him to be holding my hand, but right now my will was a weak and flimsy thing.

“Isabella, hold on. Don’t let go.” His tone was fierce. “You hear me?”

“She’s lucky,” the nurse commented quietly.

“Lucky! You call this lucky!”

“Yes, Dottore. She was lucky that you were in the market beside her and you restarted her heart when she was shot. You pumped God’s good life-giving air into her lungs. Our blessed Virgin Mary was watching over your daughter today and the good Lord is giving her strength now to stay with us.”

Papa grunted. He was never one to argue against blind faith, though he possessed none himself. He claimed it did more good for his patients than any number of pills and potions.

“So why wasn’t your Virgin Mary watching over her dead husband too?” he muttered sourly.

Luigi. Luigi.

The sight of my husband’s eyes, blank as a doll’s, came into my mind and sucked the breath out of me.

“Oxygen!” my father bellowed. “Get her oxygen!”

There was a flurry of hospital noises around me and the soft sound of the nurse intoning a prayer for my soul.

“Don’t, Isabella.” I could feel Papa’s hot anger crushing my chest. “Don’t you dare die on me, cara mia.”

Papa, it’s all right. Don’t grieve for me. I love you, but I want to be with Luigi and my baby. Let me go.

But he didn’t listen. Papa never listened. A mask was pressed to my face and oxygen was pumped into my lungs. This was my second chance. A new life. Whether I wanted it or not.

Chapter Two

BELLINA 1932

Ten Years Later

The air vibrated to the sound of pigeons and the sun streamed down on the newly constructed buildings in the piazza. To Isabella’s eye some were a little too grand. Italy’s leader, Benito Mussolini, had decreed that this brand-new town of Bellina must display the past glories of ancient Rome in its architecture. He wanted its people to revel in the fact that Italy’s Roman eagle had once dominated the world.

But all those arches. And columns. And marble colonnades. All adorning the Fascist Party headquarters. Did they really need to be quite so massive? Or quite so grandiose? Isabella’s fingers itched to redesign them. She was an architect, but was only one of the many lowly assistants to Dottore Architetto Martino, the chief architect here in Bellina, so what did she know?

Very little, according to Martino.

She sipped her scalding coffee, stretched her bare legs into a patch of autumn sunlight, and looked around at the people crossing the huge piazza. There weren’t many of them and they didn’t linger. A few were idling outside the cream curved façade of the elegant cinema. The film L’Armata Azzurra was showing there today—an Air Force adventure. Mussolini was a great believer in cinemas. Keep the populace entertained and they won’t bother you. That was his theory and Isabella wasn’t going to argue with it. But she suspected that the people of Bellina weren’t quite as docile as Il Duce liked to think they were and that they didn’t like the sense of being watched from the Fascist headquarters, which was raised above the piazza by a dozen sweeping steps. She didn’t like that feeling herself.

Every year Isabella took this day in October off work. She would sit sunk in silence, wearing the sleeveless peach dress that Luigi used to like so much, the breeze raising the small hairs on her skin. During the past week as this day drew nearer she’d started to get jumpy, and by the time this morning dawned, she was wide-eyed and sleepless.

It was ten years to the day. The day that she and Luigi were shot. It had been hot that day and was hot again now. She had taught herself self-control for the rest of the year, but on this one day each October she allowed herself to cry. Not so that anyone could see. Of course not. But deep inside herself. Something split open, she could feel it, and the tears flowed unseen. She cried for Luigi. For her unborn child. For that young easygoing girl she used to be. That October day had ruptured the fabric of her. It was that simple.

She had no idea that a decade later her life was about to be disrupted again.

She was sitting in Gino’s café, the only permitted café in the piazza because Fascists didn’t like people to gather anywhere in large numbers unless they’d organized it themselves. She was sipping coffee—strong and full of bite, just the way Gino knew she liked it—and all around her she could spy touches of her handiwork in the grand municipal buildings that bordered each side of the square. They sparkled in white marble, interspersed with intricate terra-cotta brickwork, their arches and their columns and wide spacious steps dwarfing the people who used them. These buildings were designed to impress. To remind each person who stopped to admire them of the power of the State.

Isabella found it hard to explain—even to herself—exactly why she loved pouring so much of herself into these buildings. All she knew was that it filled with warmth a place within her that was stark and cold. Sitting here in the sunshine, she could laugh at her passion for injecting life and breath into the stone and mortar of this town, and regard the piazza with a sense of quiet satisfaction.

The important thing to remember was this—for that brief moment she was happy and it was that sliver of happiness that made her vulnerable. If she had been in her usual rush, her brow creased in a frown of concentration, her mind churning over her next piece of architectural work and her eyes preoccupied with whatever was taking form within her head, the woman with the wild hair who hurried into the piazza dragging a child behind her would have chosen someone else to approach. And if not, Isabella would have said, No, I’m too busy. Nor would the child have been willing to remain with her, a stranger who had lost her smile somewhere along the way.

So it was that moment of happiness that Isabella blamed for what happened next. But how could she not be happy when she was looking at the tower? It was so beautiful. Of course she was biased because she had designed it herself. It towered the way a tower should, square and tall, surmounted by a great bronze bell, its pale travertino marble shimmering like a shaft of light, sending out a message of dominance to the whole region. It was attached to the Fascist Party headquarters. Oriolo Frezzotti, the architect in charge of the whole project of constructing Mussolini’s six new towns, caught sight of Isabella’s design on one of his lightning visits from Rome and gave Dottore Martino, her immediate superior, no option. Frezzotti had overruled his objections with an extravagant wave of his hand.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Martino had growled at her.

“No, Dottore.”

And to make sure she didn’t get ideas above her station he’d stuck her to work on gutterings and facings for the next few months. But Isabella didn’t mind. She loved her work as an architect, all aspects of it, and from her office window she watched her tower grow block by block.

Scusi, signora.”

Isabella looked at the woman. She didn’t know her or her child. She put her coffee cup down on the table and inspected her, squinting against the sun. The woman was slight and dressed in black shapeless clothes, with a face it would be easy to overlook, e...

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