“Down a Tuscan Alley” — when I first heard the title of Laura Graham’s debut novel about an Englishwoman in Tuscany, I assumed it would be a thriller or mystery. Something nefarious would happen down a Tuscan alley, and the protagonist, whose name is Lorri, would find herself enmeshed in events beyond her comprehension, fearful of getting caught in the crossfire between rival Mafia gangs…
The book is no such thing, I’m happy to report (I’m not a fan of Mafia thrillers). Strange things do happen in the dark alley outside of the tiny flat where Lorri lives in the Centro Storico (village on a hill) of the Tuscan town of Sinalunga — but nothing worse than a peeping Tom. And at one point there’s a shady-looking man following Lorri — but he turns out to be (relatively speaking) harmless.
No, the book’s real mystery has to do with why Lorri is living in a tiny Tuscan village on her own. Well, she’s not on her own but has two cats. The last time she was in Sinalunga, it was with her husband, Richard. They had bought the flat together and Richard fixed it up. But now their marriage is over because of Richard’s infidelity. Or Lorri thinks it is over — Richard is having second thoughts.
Lorri, however, is determined. She has come to Italy to get lost in the culture and start her life again. But is she doing the right thing? Her Italian neighbors treat her with some suspicion: what’s a woman doing living on her own, with no visible means of support? (She has decided to do B&B in her little flat, but since it has only one bedroom, when the guests come, she has to sleep on the sitting room floor.)
And she also has to persuade herself to trust her gut instincts. As she says toward the start of the novel:
Am I crazy to come here? Hardly any grasp of the language, forty-seven, alone and with virtually no money? Many would think so…
Lest you think we’re venturing into Under the Tuscan Sun territory, rest assured, we’re not. Lorri does not take life, let alone her midlife predicament, too seriously. This is a flat overlooking an alley we’re talking about, not a 250-year-old villa. And so what if she ends up seizing an opportunity to get involved with the handsome young builder Ronaldo? Isn’t La Dolce Amore the quickest way to obtain La Dolce Vita?
But before I get too carried away with the story, let me turn the conversation over to Laura Graham, who has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about both her book and her life story — which, as she freely admits, the novel is based on.
The decision to write an autobiographical novel
Thank you so much, Laura, for agreeing to this chat. Your story — both in the book and in real life — neatly combines the two themes we’ve been talking about on The Displaced Nation this month: the quest for La Dolce Vita and the need for taking a “midlife gap year,” which sometimes heralds an even bigger life change. But let’s start by having you talk a little about your background — where you were born, what you studied and why you went to live in Italy.
I was born and brought up on the Isle of Tiree on the West Coast of Scotland for the first six years of my life. I then came to London and entered a convent school.
Later, as an adult, I won a scholarship to study drama at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art for two years. I received the prize for being the most promising student and immediately got a job understudying Helen Mirren in The Balcony at the Aldwych Theatre in London. I had a long and successful acting career at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic, also on television.
When my long relationship ended with my former partner, I felt the need to turn my life around and decided to begin again in Italy. About ten years before, I’d invested £6,000 in a tiny hilltop village apartment in Tuscany, never thinking that one day it would become my permanent home. I still live in the village, but in a house, with my partner Rosalbo, a property restorer and an artist (he paints cats!). Besides writing, I run my own holiday agency, called “Laura’s Houses.”
Down the Tuscan Alley is your first novel. Have you written anything else?
I have also written a book for children called A Tale of Two Tuscan Cats, which was published last October. It has recently come out in Italian. Rosalbo did the illustrations.
What made you decide to write a novel about a middle-aged woman who is determined to change her life by moving abroad?
Because I’ve experienced it and thought it would make a good story — and might help others so inclined.
Why a novel and not a memoir?
I wrote my story in a novel form to protect the people I wrote about — I’ve changed their names, although some of them are now dead.
What audience did you have in mind when writing the book?
Women like myself, who want more from life than just settling into middle age with nothing but memories. Life is to be lived!
One of your Amazon reviewers wrote: “Brava! Brava! Brava! I loved reading Down a Tuscan Alley. The comic cast of characters brought me to the heart of bellisima Italia.” Other readers, however, said they were grateful that the book isn’t just about how beautiful Italy is. To which parts of the story have most readers responded?
The parts that are thought-provoking — about losing oneself in another culture in order to find oneself — and the humor are what people seem to enjoy.
Getting to the heart of La Dolce Vita…
From the time she arrives Italy, Lorri seems to be in touch with the little things that make her Tuscan alley so different from the Devonshire alley where she was living with friends, just before she left: the old stone steps, the steeple of the magnificent ochre-colored church she can see from her window, the birdsong… Is there something special about Italy that awakens the five senses?
In my opinion it is the light that awakens the senses. The light in Tuscany touches something in you, brings you to life — it’s like a medicine, a tonic.
Since you’re a former actress, would you say that daily life in Italy is more theatrical?
Living in Italy is certainly more theatrical than living in the UK. The people here are open and spontaneous.
And Lorri immediately becomes part of that drama. As her elderly English-speaking neighbor in Sinalunga, Lionello Torossi, says: “The people are delighted to see you…You are their portable theater.” But doesn’t some of the charm of a place have to do with its novelty value? Wouldn’t an Italian feel charmed by a Devonshire alley?
I think the Italians would be fascinated by a Devonshire back alley, if only to think — how is it possible to live there?
…and La Dolce Amore
At one point, Lorri is contemplating her affair with Ronaldo and says to herself: “How can you speak with your heart when you don’t know the words?” Call me a skeptic, but couldn’t their relationship change for the worse once their verbal communications improve?
No, I think Lorri would still find Ronaldo enchanting once she’s able to understand more of the language. But perhaps also more infuriating at times!
Lorri also says, with reference to Ronaldo: “These torrid passions are what happens to English women in hot countries.” Is romance so very different in Italy as compared to the UK?
Torrid passions indeed! The Italian art of seduction is very different from the UK. An Italian makes a woman feel every inch a woman and delights in her beauty and femininity no matter what her age.
Many of The Displaced Nation’s readers are in cross-cultural relationships. What do you find to be the biggest challenge about getting together with someone of another culture?
I cannot pretend it’s easy getting together for a long time with someone of a different culture — although it’s not the culture so much as the mentality. There are many things to learn, mainly about one’s self — and that’s always a challenge. Here in Italy, it’s the language I find most difficult and the humor, which is somewhat different from ours. Of the two, language is the bigger difficulty. Communicating is the key to success when living in another country. Otherwise, you can’t offer as much as yourself as you would like to.
The challenge of exporting La Dolce Vita
After living in a small Italian community for so long, do you think you could ever fit back into living in Britain?
No, I can’t imagine myself living again in the UK even though I go back twice a year and enjoy it. But if I had to I would adjust simply because I’m English. But the biggest culture shock — apart from the food — would be the people. I’ve grown so used to the warmth of the Italians.
Could you bottle the formula you’ve developed for La Dolce Vita in Tuscany and bring it back with you?
The only way to bottle the formula of the Tuscan Dolce Vita is to carry it inside my heart — and take it with me wherever I go.
Please tell me that you’re working on another book. By the time I finished Down a Tuscan Alley, I’d grown fond of Lorri, Ronaldo and the various neighbors — and felt bereft!
I am on the last chapter of my next book: The Story of Kelly McCloud. This is also set in Italy and is about a young woman who takes a job as a housesitter in an Italian villa. Amongst an eccentric English family, a fallen angel and a dragon, she discovers how to use the whole of her brain and realizes the potentiality of the human race.
Assolutamente favoloso! Thanks so much, Laura!
Readers, you can purchase Down a Tuscan Alley on Amazon. You can also read more about Laura Graham at her author site. And, should you now feel tempted into trying out La Dolce Vita for yourself, then consider renting one of her two houses in the Centro Storico of Sinalunga. What are you waiting for?!
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby, who has traded her Boston Red Sox cap for a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker in her quest to uncover her husband’s roots. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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img: Laura Graham, on the terrace outside her house in Tuscany.