The Irish Signorina

Julia O’Faolain’s THE IRISH SIGNORINA is a leisurely drama of human relationships, and its heroine a young woman who must struggle to find a solid emotional footing in an atmosphere of shifting allegiances and unexpected revelations.

Anne Ryan arrives at the ailing Marchesa’s villa uncertain of both her own position in the household and the reasons behind the sudden invitation. With the Marchesa herself she quickly develops a rapport based on the similarities of character that the two women share, but it is her hostess’ son, Guido, a married attorney, who soon captivates Anne in a manner which will complicate her stay. Adding to her confusion is Guido’s son, Neri, a brash young man close to her own age who--in a farfetched subplot--has embroiled himself in leftist politics and is hiding a radical fugitive in an unused wing of the villa.

As Anne is drawn further into the lives of all three generations of the Cavalcanti family, she is also charmed by the seductive beauty of Florence and the surrounding countryside, finding parallels between the rich sense of history in the region and the more personal family history playing itself out before her eyes. Indeed, THE IRISH SIGNORINA is at its best in its vivid evocations of the setting; the atmosphere of the villa and of the Italian countryside comes to life in lush tones that suggest both a vast cultural heritage and a timeless way of life.

The story O’Faolain sets amid her carefully sketched background, however, is slight and unengaging, with Anne’s endless musings on the Cavalcanti family eventually resembling a short story stretched out to the length of a novel. There is so little discernible chemistry between Anne and Guido that the other characters’ immediate recognition of the attraction between them comes as something of a surprise, while the story’s real surprise--and climactic plot twist--will have been anticipated by the perceptive reader. As a mood piece, THE IRISH SIGNORINA has much to recommend it, but the novel’s drawn-out story line falls far short of its eloquently depicted settings.