Two Women In Rome by Elizabeth Buchan
Two Women in Rome
By Elizabeth Buchan
Lottie Archer arrives in
Rome excited to begin her new job as an archivist. When she discovers a
valuable fifteenth-century painting, she is drawn to find out more about the
woman who left it behind, Nina Lawrence.
Nina seems to have led a rewarding and useful life, restoring Italian gardens to their full glory following the destruction of World War Two. So why did no one attend her funeral in 1978?
In exploring Nina's past, Lottie unravels a tragic love story beset by the political turmoil of post-war Italy. And as she edges closer to understanding Nina, she begins to confront the losses in her own life.
This is a powerful read and I almost feel that the understated and minimal title ‘Two Women in Rome’ belies a weighty and intricate storyline about Lottie and Nina. Two stories run in conjunction and are self-perpetuating. The more Lottie reads from Nina’s private journal, the more we discover about the lives of each. This is a multistranded saga set in the ‘eternal’ city of Rome, so-called because the ancient Romans believed that no matter what happened to the world, or how many empires rose or fell, Rome would go on forever.
Newlywed Lottie arrives in Rome to take up her new post at the Archivio Espatri and moves in with her new husband Tom but there are flaws in her character. She was given away by her mother at birth. Feelings of rejection and abandonment grew like malignant cancer, impacting her early life.
‘There had been dark times. The scissors. The uneaten meals. But the memory of the weapons she had used against herself had been banished to a dark recess in her mind’
As events unfold, Lottie’s insecurities lead to doubts and uncertainty about her relationship with Tom and with Tom’s Italian housekeeper who continually makes references to the accomplished Clare, Tom’s previous longstanding girlfriend. Nina’s life, on the other hand as a landscape gardener for illustrious clients appears innocuous. However, as the layers in the story unfurl, it is clear that Nina and other characters are not who they seem to be. Even their real names are disguised. Nina is mysterious, enigmatic, guarded and detached for a reason.
“The kind of work that I do, the secret work, involves letting part of myself go. It can sting. Experiencing anxiety and sometimes fear, is a risk on several levels.”
This is a story is about sacrifices, consequences and choices. We do not choose the people with whom we fall in love but Nina falls in love with a younger man entering the Catholic priesthood. He is named as Leo. This relationship is destined to be ill-fated. Doomed love is a controversial and emotive theme. How can God demand clerical celibacy? How can the expression of physical love offend the disciplines and traditions of the church? Can lust be such a sin? The author uses dialogue between Nina and Leo to debate this dilemma.
'"Leo, was I a useful temptation? One that you can fight, win and then declare to your God that he has triumphed?" Nina suggested unwisely that his God, like all Gods, was indifferent. It made Leo angry.
"If you don't believe in him, how can you know if he is cruel or kind?"'
This is a story of torment. As the love between Nina and Leo develops, so does the anguish. She must let him go because she is carrying his baby.
There are many other profound themes as well as religion and morality. The backdrop to Nina’s story is the turbulent political climate in the 1970s leading to the kidnapping and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Morro. This period was one of the darkest episodes in Italy’s post-war history. Foreign intelligence services such as the KGB and the CIA were implicated so Nina’s clandestine ‘other life’ is credible and convincing.
Lottie’s job of researching into Nina’s past intensifies and becomes a personal crusade to discover the truth. In fact, Tom her husband feels it is turning into an unhealthy, almost macabre obsession. Who was Nina and why was she murdered? Again, the author leads the reader into the murky shadows where dark forces of intrigue, corruption, and ambition lie.
“There were other sides to Nina, aspects of her life that would remain hidden, it was impossible to achieve genuine intimacy with the dead. Perhaps, in searching for Nina, she was searching for answers about herself!”
A compelling read. Strong multi-layered characters whose fate twists and turns and keeps the reader in suspense right to the end. A story which asks as many questions as it answers and challenges the reader to question his/her own principles and values about morality and religion. In a sense, everyone and everything is connected. Understanding the past provides a crucial perspective for understanding the present. Lottie’s investigation of Nina’s life is a journey of self-discovery. I think the writing is quite beautiful and I loved the references to art, culture and history. There is so much to uncover and discover through the ingenious symbolism and allegories. One of these is the miniature painting of Bathsheba bathing naked in The Book of Hours which Nina and Leo discover in the palazzo museum. Is the bathing woman a warning against being seduced or about the lust of men? After she is seduced by King David and has his child, she takes charge of her own destiny. There is hope for the future. David however, does not recover from the consequences of temptation. Does this relate to Nina and Leo? In the church in the piazza, Leo and Nina marvel at another medieval painting of the Annunciation depicting the scene where Mary discovers she will give birth to a son. Another story of uncertainty, belief, sorrow and joy. Another allegory. Both of these paintings have significance throughout the book.
The enduring quality of Rome continues to this day and is perhaps a metaphor for enduring love, enduring thoughts and enduring lives, written in a journal to be preserved forever in the archives. I hope that the author gives Lottie another assignment.
The author excels at vivid and atmospheric descriptions of lives, times and places.
“Rome is there, clustered with buildings, seething with its inhabitants. Its colours flash, its noises curdle in the ear at night. Its beauty is undercut by decay. Hot skies, the screech of vehicles, the unexpected and intoxicating scent of a fig tree on rounding a corner, the constant ripple of Romans on the move, a small fountain in a narrow street…. I have tried hard to pin down the eternal city but none of these captures its spirit.”
The irony is that the author does indeed, capture the haunting spirit of Rome.
Elizabeth Buchan began her career as a blurb writer at Penguin Books after graduating from the University of Kent with a double degree in English and History. She moved on to become a fiction editor at Random House before leaving to write full time. Her novels include the prizewinning Consider the Lily – reviewed in the Independent as ‘a gorgeously well-written tale: funny, sad and sophisticated’. Her latest novels are The Museum of Broken Promises which Marion Keyes has called 'a gem of a book' and Two Women in Rome.
Published by Corvus; Main edition (3 Jun. 2021)
Available in paperback from Amazon, kindle version and audiobook