Gail Mencini’s engaging novel It Happened in Tuscany concerns an old man’s search for his long-lost love.
The story opens in 1945, as the US Army 10th Mountain Division scales Riva Ridge in Tuscany, hoping to penetrate Nazi control of the territory. But things go horribly wrong, and Will Mills, a teenage expert climber and skier from Colorado, finds himself isolated and injured. Rescued by an Italian partisan, Will is cared for by his rescuer’s sister, Francesca, “the prettiest sight he’d ever seen.”
The novel then jumps to present day, just after Will’s wife dies in Denver. He resolves to return to Italy and fulfill his long-ago promise to return to Francesca. Old, feisty, with unresolved matters that torment him, Will recruits Sophie, a young neighbor in his apartment building, to help him on his travels.
Sophie has problems of her own: her boyfriend just ditched her, she quit her job, and her dog has a terminal illness. Still, she agrees to accompany Will, and as the two pursue Francesca, they also seek wholeness and resolution. Just as Will loses hope he’ll find his first love, Sophie discovers love and comes to better understand Will, and his secrets.
While early scenes would benefit from a slower pace and more backstory to show why two practical strangers would unite in this way, once Will and Sophie land in Italy, Mencini’s crisp, concise writing style works nicely. There, colorful characters aid the protagonists, and, once thick into the novel, all of Mencini‘s characters feel authentic. The author writes tension and drama beautifully, delivering unexpected twists and revelations, not only about Francesca, but also about what Will and Sophie hide in their hearts. The story’s surprising, complex, and deeply satisfying ending answers many questions, including the most obvious: What took Will so long to honor his promise?
A mix of history, mystery, and romance, It Happened in Tuscany is sure to please readers of all these genres, plus those who simply like a well-crafted quest.