BOOK REVIEW: A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo
A Letter from Italy is a romantic story that isn’t just ruled by its heart. It’s a novel inspired by Louise Mack, the first female war correspondent who worked during the First World War. It’s a book that shows how a determined and strong journalist negotiates the trials and tribulations of being a woman in a male-dominated industry and also through a time of tumultuous change.
It’s 1917 and Rebecca Quinn has travelled from her sheltered home in Sydney in order to join her husband Jack in Italy. The pair work together as journalists and file stories for papers in Australia and the United Kingdom. Early on in the story Jack abandons Rebecca in order to chase a hot lead/exclusive about people smugglers in Albania. Rebecca is then faced with the difficult decision to stay in a foreign land that’s in the grips of war or to return home. Rebecca is steadfast in her resolve to retain her independence:
Just like the Italian journalists who had written those stories for their fellow countrymen, it was her job to bring the news of the war back to the readers of Australia and England. She would do that with or without Jack. Of course she could.
When Rebecca agrees to stay in Italy she encounters a number of different issues. In Australia female journalists were confined to writing “women’s” news about fashion and families. In Italy, female journalists were virtually non-existent, denied entry to press conferences, and they had limited access to the classified pieces of information, which were given freely to their male counterparts. It is lucky that Rebecca encounters a clever and formidable older Italian woman named Nonna Rosa. This Nonna solves Rebecca’s problems by suggesting that Quinn team up with her Italian-American grandson, Alessandro Panucci (or Al Baker as he is known in the States.)
Quinn and Panucci’s partnership proves to be an excellent one. The latter takes both artistic and informative photographs documenting the war (he was denied the opportunity to fight on account of a minor disability) while the former writes the stories. These characters are beautifully written by author Pamela Hart, who has previously combined romance and war in a fictional setting in novels like The War Bride.
In A Letter from Italy, Hart creates main characters who seem utterly genuine, relatable, and complex. We see Quinn and Panucci working and bonding together as well as learning from each other. Their notions about certain things are also challenged, like in this example with Panucci:
He was taken aback. Once again she had taken him and shaken him up so that he didn’t know if it was tomorrow or Christmas. But on the whole it sounded like she approved of him, so he would take that and enjoy it, even it if was a perilous enjoyment.
During the course of the story Quinn uncovers a devastating betrayal. It’s a hard thing for her to reconcile and it shakes her beliefs about a person she thought she knew well. Hart does an excellent job of tackling this sub-plot as well as covering the difficulties that women experienced in the social and political climates of the day. Hart does this by including the example of how Australian women had been given the opportunity to vote (and Quinn’s mother is described as a suffragette) while their Italian sisters faced a denial of this right and fierce opposition to such a change by the local patriarchy.
A Letter from Italy is a novel that shares a few elements with Natasha Lester’s A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald as both star a strong female heroine who pursues a career and a romance in a man’s world. In A Letter from Italy Rebecca Quinn proves an inspirational character who is determined to prove herself in an environment that is gripped by uncertainty and change. This novel is ultimately a deep, thoughtful, and nuanced one by a fine Australian storyteller. Brilliant.
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