Review: Vivien Horler
Two Women in Rome, by Elizabeth Buchan (Corvus)
Lottie Archer is a London archivist who meets Tom at a wedding and falls in love. He lives in Rome, where he works for the British Council.
He hears of a job for an archivist in a private Rome archive, one that collects the papers of hundreds of British and American ex-pats who have lived and died in the city.
Lottie gets the job, and melts when Tom asks her to share his home. She was abandoned as an infant and has never really had a home. Within nine months of their meeting, they are married.
Much of the material in the archive is damaged and musty, and needs to be sorted. Among the first files Lottie starts work on are those of an Englishwoman, Nina Lawrence, who died in Rome in 1978 aged just 38. A note on the file says Nina had “no known contacts. No known issue. No claimants”.
Lottie’s interest is piqued, and this increases when a colleague tells her they found, in a box among Nina’s papers, what could be a valuable 15th century painting, on parchment, from an old book of hours.
The colleague makes an appointment for Lottie to meet a book historian, Gabriele Ricci, to probe the authenticity of the painting. Ricci tells her a French master, Pucelle fils, had been commissioned to paint a book of hours for the Duchess of Palacrino, in the 1490s.
Lottie already knows that Nina, a horticulturalist helping to restore famous old gardens devastated in World War 2, had worked on the garden of the Palacrino ducal palazzo.
If the painting is authentic, how had Nina come to have it? The Palacrinos, impoverished by the war, are unlikely to have given it to her. Could she have stolen it?
Intrigued, Lottie goes back to her office and delves deeper into Nina’s box. And one of the first things she discovers is a bulging leather notebook, tied up with string. She discovers: “… close-written entries. Botanical drawings. Pressed flowers. Letters. Photographs. A life.”
Lottie, who has grown up with no family, becomes obsessed with Nina, to Tom’s increasing disquiet. Why was Nina so alone in Rome? Why did no one attend her funeral?
Interspersed with Lottie’s research are excerpts from Nina’s journal. And it soon becomes clear that Nina was living a double or even a triple life. She was having a relationship with a young man, Leo, a recent university graduate who is the protégé of powerful men in the Vatican, and who expect Leo to go into the church.
Veteran author Elizabeth Buchan writes beautifully of art, Rome and the relationships between Nina and Leo, and between Lottie and Tom, whose marriage comes under increasing strain as Lottie persists in raking up old tensions.
The late 1970s was a volatile period in Italian history. In mid-March 1978, the former prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigade, and 54 days later his body was found in the boot of a car. Communist and other political parties were at each other’s throats, and old Western allies, including the US and the UK, did not want the Communists to gain a sturdy foothold in the country. At the same time the Catholic church was (and is) a powerful force both in Rome and Italy.
When Lottie goes to the Vatican to find out what the church knew about Leo and Nina, she is given short shrift. And behind the scenes, its tentacles start to work.
Buchan knows her craft – and the city of Rome. I have never been there, but now it’s on the bucket list. This is a terrific read.