In the Shadow of the Apennines by Kimberly Sullivan


In the Shadows of the Apennines by

Kimberly Sullivan


The sleepy little Abruzzo mountain town of Marsicano seems about as far as Samantha can flee from her failed marriage and disastrous university career. Eager for a fresh start, Samantha begins to set down roots in her Italian mountain hideaway.
At first, the mountain retreat appears idyllic, but an outsider’s clumsy attempts at breaking into the closed mountain community are quickly thwarted when the residents discover Samantha’s snarky blog ridiculing the town and its inhabitants.
Increasingly isolated in her mountain cottage, Samantha discovers the letters and diaries of Elena, a past tenant and a survivor of the 1915 Pescina earthquake. Despite the fact that a  century separates the two women, Samantha feels increasingly drawn into Elena’s life, and discovers startling parallels with her own.


This is an intriguing and absorbing story about how someone from the past rescues someone in the present. The opening paragraph is a stark and harrowing description of Samantha’s predicament. It is Christmas Eve and she is alone, in her newly renovated cottage in Abruzzo, Italy. A blizzard outside has caused a ‘whiteout.’ Strong winds could cause a snowdrift and the depth of falling snow trap her inside the house.

 ‘I know no-one will care if I die here alone. I fear I don’t have the strength to go on’

 Samantha turns to the ghost in the cottage for help. Elena, a shepherdess who lived there over a century ago.

 I think the reader feels tremendous pathos for Samantha, the central character and sorrow. Her choices in life were perhaps not the right ones. A less than loving relationship with her mother who we feel expected more from her daughter. A career which seems to be going nowhere and a sour marriage which subsequently ended in divorce from Michael, her husband. We feel that she is suffering from depression and the author expertly captures a sense of despair as her she struggles to cope with life’s challenges.

 ‘well-placed jogs allowed the rancour to seep away with physical exertion. To help me keep from losing control, to hold at bay the ever-present sense of disappointment, of failure’

 When she discovers her husband is having an affair and wants to end the marriage, Samantha falls apart, she is broken and also loses her job.  The author expertly captures her sense of despair in the way she describes her feelings and emotions during her suicide attempt.

 ‘It was one tiny effort to climb over the edge of the bridge. I was drawn to the idea of letting go. I thought it might put an end to my pain too.’

 Samantha is saved by one of her students. She is not being tested simply to make life hard.  Tests are in fact opportunities and one presents itself in the form of a chance to buy an old cottage in Abruzzo, Italy. The plan is to renovate it so the reader is given hope that as the cottage comes back to life after standing empty and abandoned for many years, so Samantha will reconstruct her own life.  

 There is an innate air of optimism as Samantha settles down to her new life, getting to know the locals, exploring the area and hoping that the door to creative thoughts will open, that she may summon an inner muse, breaking through her writer’s block to finding artistic inspiration. Sadly her writing takes the form of a personal blog which inadvertently mocks the local way of life and is derisive.

  In her darkest moments, something happens and the house starts to reveal its secrets. Samantha discovers photographs, diaries and personal mementos of previous inhabitants. Elena Tranquilli, a ghost with an incredible story of love, and survival amid one of nature’s violent and abrupt tragedies. The author has clearly researched her story and the true facts of the 1915 devasting earthquake are cleverly woven into this narrative. One of the biggest earthquakes in Italian history shook the Marsica area in the Province of L’Aquila in Abruzzo. Initial reports did not mention serious damage, and not until later that night did the scale of the devastation become clear. Almost 30,000 inhabitants lost their lives. The epicentre was located in the town of Avezzano which was completely destroyed.

 Elena and Samantha forge something unique, a connection, a common bond from their individual experiences of feeling like misfits and misplaced in their world.

 “I began to think of Elena as a soulmate. I did not consider it a coincidence that it had been I who stumbled on her possessions. Her journals, simply waiting for me to discover them.”

 For me, this is a sympathetically well-written part of the story. The reader is transported back in time to when life was extremely harsh for peasants most of whom lived in abject poverty. Elena’s story is raw and compelling.


Why I recommend this book

There are some lovely descriptive moments in the book.

The author’s knowledge of the area, its history and the slow pace of life adds to the authenticity of the story.  For anyone who doesn’t know Abruzzo, it is a remote area of Italy and as a region, it stands alone in its culture, traditions and attitudes.  There is a lovely anecdote of making homemade pasta with her new friend Elisabetta a local young student.

 ‘I savoured the oversized ravioli, the fresh creaminess of the ricotta cheese filling, so perfectly paired with the earthy pungent note of sage, the salty bite of the Parmigiano

 The author mentions that Samantha’s reason for moving to Marsicano was to recreate ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ from a new angle and ironically, I think she is right. The story has unsettling undercurrents of a harsher reality than the one left behind. The idiom that ‘the grass is greener’ expresses the idea that people often think a different set of circumstances would bring them greater joy. The journey to fulfillment and peace in this story takes time to develop. Even with a newly renovated property, Samantha feels lonely and life is still missing essential elements, companionship, love and validation. All of this comes from such an unlikely source. I really like how a life in the present can be inextricably linked to a life in the past.  Other perspectives matter, it helps us see the world from other people’s points of view, and give us a better sense of our connections to others and sense of self.  Elena’s story becomes Samantha’s story and the reader is finally given a 'happy ending' 

The past, writes poet Michael Donaghy, ‘falls open anywhere’, and it’s important that, when it does, we recognise, understand and connect to it.


Kimberly grew up in the suburbs of Boston and in Saratoga Springs, New York, although she now calls the Harlem neighborhood of New York City home when she’s back in the US. She studied political science and history at Cornell University and earned her MBA, with a concentration in strategy and marketing, from Bocconi University in Milan.

Afflicted with a severe case of Wanderlust, she worked in journalism and government in the US, Czech Republic and Austria, before settling down in Rome, where she works in international development, and writes fiction any chance she gets.

She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) and The Historical Novel Society and has published several short stories and three novels: Three Coins, Dark Blue Waves and In The Shadow of The Apennines.

After years spent living in Italy with her Italian husband and sons, she’s fluent in speaking with her hands, and she loves setting her stories in her beautiful, adoptive country.








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  1. Thank you so much for joining the tour and for this lovely review. It means a lot to me - especially coming from a fellow Abruzzo admirer. Grazie!!


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