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Although her books are rooted more in reality, Nicky Pellegrino is doing for Italy what Joanne Harris has done for France, with her series of loosely connected novels set in Italy's sultry south; the two authors are also similar in that both write beautifully about food, a subject that occurs as a theme in most of their novels.
"Recipe for Love" is set partly in London, partly in Italy. The central character is Alice who, having been brutally raped by a stranger, abandons her studies and moves to London where she crashes in a friend's flat, desperately unhappy and with no idea of what to do with her life. Some waitressing work leads to an unexpected opportunity to work in the restaurant kitchen and Alice throws herself into the job, working every hour she can. Her boss Tonnino sees in Alice the potential to do well in her new career but feels she's missing something so he arranges for her to work in Italy at his parents' trattoria in the (fictional) town of Triento.
There she becomes friends with Babetta, an elderly woman who tends the gardens of Villa Rosa, the house where Alice is staying. The house has just changed hands and Babetta fears that her job as gardener may be under threat but she carries on as usual, hoping to make herself indispensable to the new owners. In return for her work Babetta takes home a few vegetables from the garden which she uses in the meals she lovingly creates for her husband Nunzio who is causing her a lot of concern; he no longer speaks, just sits in his chair outside their cottage, staring silently at the view. Though they don't have a language in common, the two women soon become firm friends, each learning from the other some important life lessons.
There's a lot more to this story but it would be wrong to say much more about what actually happens. In a sense there's too much going on and Pellegrino is, at times, asking a lot of the reader to expect she (or he) should believe in the turn of events; there's nothing outrageously incredible, but there are a couple of things that seem a little too 'convenient' that are there just to link up different parts of the story.
Without the cooking this would be a rather ordinary contemporary tale of a young woman struggling to make sense of her life after a traumatic event. The characters and situations are convincing but certainly not original no matter how credibly portrayed. The cooking, and also the setting of the scenes in Italy, transforms 'Recipe for Life' from a very average novel into something stimulating that awakens the senses. The descriptions of the food are mouth watering and the passion with which those doing the cooking approach their work is inspiring. It's easy to escape the world around you and imagine yourself in the little Italian port, drinking a glass of wine outside the trattoria or riding through the Italian countryside on a scooter; reading 'Recipe for Life' it's obvious that these are places and experiences that Nicky Pellegrino knows well and loves.
The story unfolds through alternating chapters narrated by Alice in the first person and a third person account of Babetta's story. I found the combination of first person and third person narrative a bit odd at first, partly because I thought it would be less clumsy to make them the same. I also felt that Babetta's story would have been better told as a first person account because a third person voice seemed too impersonal for the deep insight the reader has into her thoughts and fears. Ultimately it doesn't matter whether the narration comes directly from the character or from a third person; whichever structure is chosen would result in a form of story telling that shows beautifully what each woman takes from the friendship and the valuable lessons each learns about making the most of what life throws at you.
Babetta is a wonderful character; she's led a very simple life but her skills and wisdom indicate a lifetime of experience. Although her situation is very sad, her decision to plough on and make Nunzio's life as peaceful and happy as it can for the troubled old man is inspiring and life affirming. There's a great deal of sadness in the novel, but there's also an optimistic feeling which makes this a great feel good read.
Readers who are familiar with Nicky Pellegrino's book may know that some of the characters in this novel had previously appeared in 'The Gypsy Tearoom'. Although the locations and some of the characters in her books overlap, there's no need to worry about spoilers because the connections are so loose. I like this aspect of Pellegrino's novels and consider myself quite a fan now. This is stimulating fiction that falls nicely been not too taxing and not too lightweight, escapism with a bit of substance you could say.
368 pages in paperback. Kindle edition also available