Lesson Two is to start young. While her peers were playing with dolls and dreaming of ponies, little Lisa was spending her holidays inspecting pay-as-you-enter stately homes, then dashing back to Clapham to pore over the Sunday Times property pages. By mid-adolescence she was ready to begin the long periods of global train travel interspersed with difficult marriages in inconvenient houses (Venezuelan hacienda, draughty Norfolk castle) that not only fuelled her memorable fiction and travel writing but honed her taste in shabbily grand domestic architecture. Her middle years, and this book, find her drifting languidly around Italy with two faery children, a third husband and many trunks in tow, on the lookout for a lasting idyll.
When she discovers it, regal and ravaged among the oak woods and tobacco fields of the Umbrian hills, we enter a realm of delicious double vision, where dull fact bows down to lofty fancy. Having bought the wreckage (with money she insists she does not have), she elects to camp out in the rubble with her daughter, compiling engaging lists: '1. Remove bedsprings, bicycles, bits of cars, etc and make pile . . . 7. Make lovely . . . 11. Some statues, wall, fountain, etc'. At dawn, an army of twinkling artisans arrives unannounced, a veritable miracle. By the time it is admitted that the builders are actually there by prior arrangement, it is too late; the impression that fairy-tales-can-come-true-it-can-happen-to- you has taken root. This delayed-information trick is pulled often. Throwaway references to 'the two au pairs' and 'my ballroom' are allowed their full impact (cor blimey how these toffs do live) before, many pages later, we get the qualifying clauses: the au pairs are affable Irish girls who get next to no pay in return for next to no work; the 'ballroom' is a large vacant space in the villa's upper regions which might perhaps, just conceivably, one day, become a ballroom.
The indigenous population get similarly wishful treatment. The inhabitants of the village of San Orsolo manage to be, at one and the same time, the sophisticated owners of cars, dishwashers and centrally-heated houses and merry serfs who, when not toiling in the fields, or performing quaint local customs, or quaffing the (inevitable) lethal local brew, are ever ready to humour the seigneurial home-improvers. There are no half measures either in the matter of personal attractiveness. You are either beautiful, like the foreman builder Imolo, with his tragic mien and lapis lazuli eyes, or fascinatingly ugly. No prizes for guessing in which category the author's family belongs: Iseult, already at 15 in demand as a Paris model, is pursued by platoons of local 'swains'; little Allie (golden ringlets and everlasting sailor suits) is adored by all. Husband Robbie's face is veiled in mystery, but if the white linen outfit with fancy waistcoat is anything to go by he must be quite a looker too.
Money, that bourgeois hang-up, is treated with appropriate hauteur. Robbie toils away at his paintings, but there is no mention of any sales; Lisa makes glancing reference to her book royalties. Windfalls arrive in the form of an inherited vintage Rolls-Royce or a cheque from a relation to pay for a new marble floor, but there are still cash crises and unwilling visits to unfeeling Italian banks. What wouldn't you give, though, for the phone number of the builder who, told that funds have run out, gaily carries on regardless?
As the palazzo, with its loggia, noble balustrades, numberless rooms and urgently necessary plumbing emerges proudly from the ruins, the book's escapist spell begins to have its effect. This is partly a matter of literary brio - the signora may be the umpteenth expatriate to describe a grape harvest but she does it beautifully - and partly of mood. The fact is that the sheer enthusiasm of the self-absorbed enterprise finally gets to you. By the time her runaway imagination is converting a few pots of struggling lilies into fields full of fragrantly waving cash crop it is hard to stop yourself thinking this a jolly sensible idea.
A Valley in Italy is, however, more than a romance, more than a how-to manual. It is an aid to self-knowledge. If you sometimes catch yourself itching to know what the doting natives really think of the bella signora inglesa, or primly noticing how much more often her family seem to accept than to dispense free meals, services and favours, or thinking that if the beauteous daughter is referred to as 'the child Iseult' just once more you will scream - then you are not the stuff of which palazzo-owners are made, and must resign yourself to a life of paying upfront and queuing at Texas Homecare. You can at least buy this book, so increasing the chances of its author getting the ballroom that is no more than her due.
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