Reading Group Guide
Alba Arbuckle always feels like an outsider. She hardly knew her Italian mother, Valentina, and her English father acts as if Valentina never existed. Alba despises country life almost as much as she despises her stepmother and stepsisters. On board the London houseboat named after her dead mother, Alba's life is little more than a selfish search for fun and pleasure.
But the discovery of her mother's portrait sends Alba back to Italy to find her family - and the truth about Valentina. Amid the olive groves of the Amalfi coast, she discovers a tale of deception and betrayal revealing a secret web of partisans and Nazis, peasants and counts, and ultimately a forbidden truth. What Alba finds in the past is heartrending, but it's the gateway to her own future.
1. The prologue opens the book with a gruesome murder, and yet the central action of the story is of love and self realization. How does this killing frame your reading of the story? When did you realize the identities of the killers?
2. The book begins with Fitz and Viv watching Alba. Later [ms. p. 156] Cook watches Alba rummage through her father's desk. Discuss the point of view of the narrator in the story and how the author uses various vantage points to tell the story. What role does spying play in revealing secrets to the reader throughout the story?
3. Lavender Arbuckle says [ms. p. 26], "A woman is nothing without a man by her side. Nothing without children." With all that she has learned, gained and lost by the end of the story, would Alba agree with her fully?
4. Discuss the similarities and differences between Lavender Arbuckle and Immacolata. What does each one offer Alba? Who do you think is the better grandmother?
5. Although Alba "only attended church to irritate the Buffalo in her short skirt and to show off her boyfriend" [ms. p. 151], as the service continued Alba "didn't think about sex. She didn't dwell on Fitz's kiss. For once in her life, Alba Arbuckle thought about God." [ms. p. 152] What role does religion play in the story? How does attending church affect Alba's decision making?
6. The story is divided into three portraits. What is the relation of the segmented form of the story to the content of the story? What do each one of these distinct paintings by Thomas Arbuckle reveal about Valentina? Do they also reveal something about Alba, or women in general?
7. What does Alba see in Fitz that allows her to fall so hard and so fast for him? Unlike her other boyfriends he does not send her flowers after they have a spat, so what does he add to her life that her other boyfriends did not?
8. After Alba cuts her hair Falco asks her, "Who are you running from, Alba?" Why does Alba make such a drastic change to her appearance? What does this change in her symbolize? Does this change accomplish what she wants it to?
9. Although Alba had never been back to Italy after she left it as a baby, Immacolata says that "Alba is home" [ms. p. 266] when she is in Incantellaria. At the end of the story Alba's physical home, the boat The Valentina, is scuttled. Where do you think home is for Alba?
10. Valentina says that "War reduces men to animals and turns women into shameful creatures." To what extent is the war to blame for the tragedy that befalls Valentina? To what extent is human nature at fault?
11. Alba begins the story living on the water and ends up living on dry land, yet far away from where she spent most of her life. What do water and land each represent in the story?
12. What were your feelings about Alba's decision to leave Fitz and return to Incantellaria at the end of the story? What does Alba's choice say about the strength of family bonds versus the strength of love? Do you agree with her decision?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. To see photos of the Italian coast described in the book check out from your local library Amalfi: Italy's Divine Coast by Assunta Cuozzo and Bonavoglia Rosario or Hidden Naples and the Amalfi Coast by Cesare Cunaccia.
2. Buy or rent Italian folk music to play at your group meeting when you discuss the book. Some popular choices include: Mandolins from Italy: 24 Most Popular Melodies by Joel Perri and Italian Treasury: Folk Music & Song of Italy by Alan Lomax.
3. Cook an Italian meal for your book group. Some excellent Italian cookbooks from Simon & Schuster include: The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Williams-Sonoma Collection: Italian by Pamela Sheldon Johns.