7 Great Books Set in Italy That We Love

7 Great Books Set in Italy That We Love

Thursday, 29 September, 2022

Italy really doesn’t need a hard sell. It’s a dreamy holiday destination with highlights that are practically a list of the things that make life worth living: pasta, wine, cheese, romance, beaches, mountains, skiing, world-class art, stunning architecture, dramatic history, and Vespas.

From Milan and Venice in the north to Naples and Sicily in the south — plus Rome, Florence, and more in the middle — there are adventures, regional dishes, local wines, and gorgeous sights to be found.

Here are seven books set in Italy that took us there on the page: a love letter to Trieste, a history of Venice told through food, a fresh look at Galileo’s life, a novel infused with sunshine and Gothic vibes, and two dreamy literary classics.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Italy: A Bottle of Red, the Tuscan Sun, and Il Dolce Far Niente.


The Invitation - Lucy Foley

The Invitation
> Lucy Foley

This devastatingly romantic story is set aboard a luxury yacht sailing up the coast of the Italian Riviera to the Cannes Film Festival in 1953. If you’ve ever wished to time-travel to a more glamorous era — fabulous couture, flowing champagne, delicious scandal — this book is your transport.

Our would-be hero is Hal, a struggling journalist. In need of a drink and a good story, he accepts an invitation to a posh cocktail party thrown by a Contessa: She’s gathered her wealthy friends to woo them into financing a film she wants to produce. Ignored and rebuffed by the Contessa’s snobby friends, Hal escapes to the rooftop garden — where he’s joined by a beautiful blonde woman in a shimmery dress. Say hello to Stella.

The two embark on an enchanted lamplit evening in Rome. The next morning, they both return to their normal lives — and Hal realizes he never learned Stella’s last name.

Two years later, the Contessa makes him an irresistible offer: She wants Hal to chronicle her star-studded party sailing up the coast of Italy to her film’s premiere at Cannes. There’s a sexy Italian actress, the artistic film director, a revered actor, and… Stella.

As the cocktails are poured, Hal’s feelings for Stella are rekindled, and we learn that everyone on board has secrets they’d prefer to keep in the dark. {more}

That spring was the start of everything for me. Before then, I might have been half asleep, drifting through life. Before then I had not known the true capacity of the human heart. I remember it all with such a peculiar clarity. Though I know that now is the time to do this, or never at all, I cannot deny my dread of returning to that spring. Because what happened was my fault, you see. — Lucy Foley


Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere - Jan Morris

During the 94 years that British writer Jan Morris walked this Earth, she led a remarkable life. This moving portrait of a city is just one of her 40 books in which she explored the intimacies of place and how they shape us as humans.

Most people might not think to visit Trieste, a small city on the northeastern side of Italy. Walking distance from Slovenia and tucked into the far corner of the Adriatic, it’s not even part of Italy’s boot, for heaven’s sake. Though it once rivaled Hong Kong as a port city, it doesn’t have the romance of Venice, the history of Rome, or the art of Florence. It’s barely even Italian — the Austrians held Trieste for far longer.

There are parts of this book that feel as if the author Jan Morris is actively trying to talk you out of visiting. She shares her remarkably complex history with Trieste, having visited as a young man in the 1960s and later in her life, after gender reassignment surgery, as a mature woman.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this relationship with the city, she loved it. In her carefully rendered, if a bit dense, prose, she vividly describes being homesick for this place that was not her home and conveys a deep nostalgia for a time she did not see.

Throughout, she writes with intelligence, passion, and clarity, able to put on the page precisely what she found remarkable and how it made her feel. {more}

I write of exiles in Trieste, but I have generally felt myself an exile, too. For years I felt myself an exile from normality, and now I feel myself one of those exiles from time. The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are treading unknown territory, leaving your own land behind. You’ve never been here before. The clothes people wear, the idioms they use, their pronunciation, their assumptions, tastes, humours, loyalties all become the more alien the older you get. The countryside changes. The policemen are children. Even hypochondria, the Trieste disease, is not what it was, for that interesting pain in the ear-lobe may not now be imaginary at all, but some obscure senile reality. This kind of exile can mean a new freedom, too, because most things don’t matter as they used to. They way I look doesn’t matter. The opinions I cherish are my business. The books I have written are no more than smudged graffiti on a wall, and I shall write no more of them. Money? Enough to live on. Critics? To hell with ‘em. Kindness is what matters, all along, at any age — kindness, the ruling principle of nowhere! — Jan Morris


A Room with a View - E. M. Forster

A Room with a View
> E.M. Forster

The story opens in the Pension Bertolini in Florence, an inn for traveling English gentlefolk that is so British, ‘it might be London.’ We meet Miss Charlotte Bartlett — chaperone, stifled, judgmental, lonely — and Miss Lucy Honeychurch, her niece, on a trip abroad for finishing. The inn and their rooms — significantly, without a view — are a disappointment to both Charlotte and Lucy. The travelers are further disillusioned by the other guests at the inn who are deemed unfortunate by the uptight Charlotte; she holds particular ire for the uninhibited Mr. Emerson and his fanciful son George.

Despite Lucy’s intentions to be good — that is, to be quiet, humble, respectable — our heroine is almost always in a muddle. She lives a tidy, ordered existence, but she’s naturally curious and, deep down, wants to fight against a society that labels overt kindness as indelicate. When she plays Beethoven on the piano with heated passion, it inspires another character to remark: ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.’

But nothing — not a scrape with death, nor a stolen kiss in a field of wildflowers — gives Lucy the courage she needs to defy convention. She returns to the cool, well-understood drawing room of her family home at Windy Corners in Surrey and succumbs to the comfort of a respectable fiancé and an conventional life. But, as we all know, books are powerful things, and the chance reading of a passage in a scandalous novel jolts Lucy out of her muddle. What she does next unbalances Lucy and everyone around her in the best way possible. {more}

It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road. — E. M. Forster


Galileo’s Daughter - Dava Sobel

Galileo's Daughter
> Dava Sobel

If your familiarity with the Renaissance scientist Galileo is limited to a ninth-grade history class and that totally awesome Indigo Girls’ song, this is the book for you.

Born in 1564, Galileo Galilei is known as The Father of Physics and sometimes The Father of Modern Science. He did not invent the telescope, but he made it his own, grinding on the math to produce a better telescope. And then he looked up, and his reward was the craters of the moon, the phases of Venus, and the stars of the Milky Way. He may have been the first person to get a sense of how unimaginably vast the universe is.

That’s Galileo, the scientist. This book presents a picture of Galileo, the human. It’s a retelling of his life illuminated by letters exchanged between him and his daughter Maria Celeste (as in Celestial, a nod to her father’s relationship with the stars).

Part of the immense attraction of this book is the sense of place and time contained in the letters. There’s Galileo and his world-class problems, but there’s also a father and a daughter talking about their lives: I have a toothache. Here’s what I ate today. I really want to move into a better room; can you help?

This book also makes it very clear that Galileo was a man of faith. He was raised Roman Catholic and held those beliefs his entire life. His two daughters both became nuns. He believed in the power of prayer — but he also believed that God placed mysteries in the universe for people to solve.

If you are generally interested in science or curious about Florence in the 16th century, it’s a pleasure to spend time with Galileo and Maria Celeste. {more}

Even more than he regretted her opposition, he dreaded the drawing of battle lines between science and Scripture. Personally, he saw no conflict between the two. — Dava Sobel


Cinnamon and Salt - Emiko Davies

Author Emiko Davies is a food writer and photographer who could teach us all a thing or two about how to enjoy life. She’s lived in her adopted home of Italy for almost two decades, has written four other lovely cookbooks about Italian cuisine, and there’s this: ‘She and Marco live in a Tuscan village with their two daughters, where they dream about opening their own wine bar one day.’

This book features recipes and stories of cicchetti, the irresistible two-bite appetizers found in Venice and only at neighborhood bars called bácari. Cicchetti is a food and an embrace of la dolce vita: The idea is that after work or when your errands are complete, you meet up with friends, sip a spritz, and eat a little something salty and flavorful along with your neighborhood gossip.

In some ways, this book is just what you might expect from a coffee table cookbook. There are gorgeous photos that will transport you to Venice. Dreamy shots down cobbled alleys, pigeons bobbing in a hidden square, locals reading the newspaper with a cup of espresso, a lonely gondolier on a canal. Andcarefully researched, well-written recipes for cicchetti that range from simple (hard-cooked egg topped with an anchovy) to more elaborate (Venetian-style fried mozzarella sandwiches).

But that’s just a sneaky way to lure you into Venetian history. The heart of the book is a romp through the Renaissance via its food and art. Davies used historical cookbooks, food memories, and Renaissance art to inform her recipes, so fascinating tidbits from her research season the text just right. Between recipes, we learn the thrilling story of a shipwreck in Norway that led to one of the most popular dishes in Venice and explore the historical value (and romance) of spices. {more}

It doesn’t take long for this city to work its magic on me. Just one look at that long, low horizon shaped by the grey-green Venetian waters as the train pulls into the island station, Venezia Santa Lucia, and I find myself breathing a sigh. It never gets old: the lagoon, the water- lapped maze of streets and canals, the salt-worn, crumbling buildings and campi (squares) hidden away like secret pockets. Whether enshrouded in winter fog with impending high waters or under the warm, beating sun, Venice is truly unforgettable. — Emiko Daviesë


Less - Andrew Sean Greer

> Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is a working writer who’s yet to pen a best-seller. He’s gay, almost 50, and his ex-lover is about to get married. There’s only one reasonable thing to do: take off on a trip around the world.

What Arthur doesn’t expect, however, is that his far-flung adventures will be the key to finding his way home.

Our hero’s escapist trip takes him to a series of increasingly dubious writing events around the globe: from San Francisco to Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India, Japan, and back to the city by the bay. He’s no smooth operator, and his escapades include falling in love and out of windows, weathering a desert sandstorm, and being judged by a group of precocious high school students.

Everywhere he goes, Arthur inadvertently charms the people he meets, and, eventually, he learns how to love himself. While the prose of this sweet, wistful, funny, life-affirming novel is light and sparkly, it’s equally intelligent and is emotionally, unerringly true.

While the prose of this sweet, wistful, funny, life-affirming novel is light and sparkly, it’s equally intelligent and is emotionally, unerringly true. The thoughtful characters live and breathe on the page, loving each other and making messy mistakes. {more}

He kisses — how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you. There are some men who have never been kissed like that. There are some men who discover, after Arthur Less, that they never will be again. — Andrew Sean Greer


Still Life - Sarah Winman

Still Life
> Sarah Winman

This story of found family set in Florence in the first few decades after World War II will change the way you think about the world and make you glad to be alive.

When the story opens, it’s 1944, and we meet our hero, a British soldier named Ulysses Temper. A thoughtful young man with a strong sense of self and unfailing optimism, he’s stationed in Italy. Although he’s dodging bombs and seeing first-hand the devastation of the war, he keeps his heart open to the beauty around him.

Along with Ulysses, we meet his boss and friend Captain Darnley and a 64-year-old art historian named Evelyn Skinner. The three of them enjoy an unforgettable evening together in a cellar that’s been turned into a would-be nightclub for Allied officers. Afterward, as they’re making their farewells, Evelyn says to Darnley, ‘Thank you for tonight. Keep your head down and stay in the world, if you please.’

And that’s it. They part without knowing if they’ll ever see each other again.

After the war, Ulysses returns to London and his neighborhood pub to be among his old friends and family. Then one day, he learns he’s the recipient of an unexpected inheritance that takes him back to Tuscany. The rest of the book is a thoroughly absorbing depiction of how his life unfolds.

Fair warning: This story may make you homesick for fictional people and places you’ve never been. It’s tender and sweet, but never twee, and explores every emotion: joy, sorrow, jealousy, forgiveness, gratitude, but mostly love in all its different flavors. {more}

So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unsuspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds one of all that’s been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return. The proximity of new skin returns to the sheets. Beauty does what is required. Jobs fulfill and conversations inspire. Loneliness becomes a mere Sunday. Scattered clothes. Empty bowls. Rotting fruit. Passing time. But still life in all its beauty and complexity. — Sarah Winman

Top image courtesy of Alex Vasey/Unsplash.

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Oh, Italy! We see your snow-capped mountains and sunny beaches, your fresh pasta and sweet gelato, your Renaissance artists, iconic cities, and the soft, magical quality of your light. We love all of it. Grazie.
This weekend, we recommend a getaway to the warm sunshine and stunning sights of Florence with Lucy Honeychurch, a heroine who would take the world by storm, if she could only get out of her 19th-century muddle.
Let the Romantic poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow transport you to Italy's Amalfi coast. His lyrical words evoke the awesome beauty and formidable power of the Tyrrhenian Sea 'where the waves and mountains meet.'

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