Book Review: The Sweet Hills Of Florence by Jan Wallace Dickinson

The Sweet Hills Of Florence…

About the Book:

1941. Florence, city of strife. It is Hitler’s state visit to Florence and the last of the good times for Mussolini. From now on, he and his lover Clara will cling more closely together, ever more dependent upon each other as their country spirals into civil war and their lives disintegrate.

Annabelle and Enrico, young cousins from an ancient Florentine family, work first with the clandestine resistance, then openly with the partisans. Facing life and death together in the mountains, they forge a passionate life-long bond.
How reliable is memory and can we ever expiate past sins? Are some ghosts better left alone?

My Thoughts:

I’ve read a few novels about Italy, set during WWII, and it never fails to stun me how devastated that country was. The burden of putting your life back together and living within the stain of so much misery would have been no small feat. As time progressed, history would have mingled with the present, ensuring that the passage of time didn’t necessarily ease the burden of memory. The Sweet Hills Of Florence pays homage to the partisans of Italy, narrowing its focus onto Florence in particular. It’s an ambitious novel, weighted with history, steeped in atmosphere, even including a fictionalised account of the last years of Mussolini, viewed from the perspective of his mistress, Clara Petacci.

‘This was the real Florence, the Florence of sobbing and wailing and tearing of hair, not the painted and decorated Florence put on show by the authorities to distract the populace.’

This novel is heavy reading, not just in its subject matter, but also in its breadth and scope. It was, for me, too long. The history is meticulously documented and woven into the narrative with precision, but the complications of Italy’s political history and the large cast make for a concentrated effort. The author’s passion for Florence, and indeed, for Florentine history, is well realised though, and the resulting sense of atmosphere was richly rendered. There is much food for thought throughout the novel, particularly relating to the protection of art in times of war.

‘Was art worth a human life? Well, she supposed it depended on whose life. But if there was nothing left afterwards, what were they all fighting for?’

There is a romance, or rather, a love story, underpinning the events of the novel, but it failed to draw me in. If I’m honest, it kind of repelled me.

‘It was clear to everyone that Annabelle and Enrico were in love. They would ‘come to heir senses’ was the general view. It was the war. The war turned everything topsy turvy. The war made people do things…’

Annabel and Enrico are first cousins, in what I gathered was an aristocratic family. The family itself seemed lofty and appeared to have placed themselves in a position of isolation on account of being anti-everything. I found this depiction quite interesting actually, and I could see how this had transpired as a result of an ideological clash with the politics of Mussolini, who we can’t forget, was in power for a great many years before WWII. But this lofty view had resulted in a particularly sheltered existence, more so for Annabel than Enrico, and consequently, she became rather fixated on her own cousin. Until Annabel entered the resistance, she was overtly dreamy with little grasp on the wider world around her, embarrassingly obsessed with the ‘love story’ between Mussolini and Clara. While my opinion of her rose immeasurably as she began to find herself through her work in the resistance, and then later as a partisan, I still felt her affair with Enrico was off balance. I simply couldn’t become invested in their love story because I fundamentally didn’t approve of it.

A good portion of this novel was given over to Clara and Mussolini, in a move to humanise them, is my guess, but Clara was such a shallow woman, and Mussolini was so whiny and irrational. I came to dread these sections. What happened to their corpses after their deaths can be evaluated in many ways, but I think allowances need to be made for the pain and loss that people endure, the atrocities and debasement that can be forced upon a person. I refuse to judge another when I truly have no concept on what it’s like to live within their skin. Stories about any war need to be handled with care, particularly those that occurred within the generations of living memory. ‘The wrong sector of the right side’ is a notion that brings me a lot of discomfort. I grew up digesting the history of WWII, my Belgian grandfather never failed to remind us daily how lucky we were. In adulthood, I became privy to the reasons why he had berated us for moaning over wet socks and lumpy porridge. Details about his life as a resistance fighter were imparted to me almost as a revered gift, the knowledge of which sits within me like a solid mass. One thing I appreciate about this novel is that it neither romanticised nor demonised the resistance. It just depicted it as it was. I still feel unsettled though, by this novel, and I can’t seem to put my finger on why.

‘Are we heroes? Are we murderers? When do we become what we are fighting against?’

Overall, The Sweet Hills Of Florence is a novel with great depth and regard for the history that inspired it. Jan Wallace Dickinson is an author who demonstrates a clear passion for her subject. Anyone with an interest in Italian history would do well to add this novel to their shelves.


Thanks is extended to the author for providing me with a copy of The Sweet Hills Of Florence for review.

About the Author:

Jan Wallace Dickinson has lived and worked in both Italy and Australia for more than twenty-five years. She has a wide range of commercial and academic experience at all levels, in both countries. Her particular interest is Italian literature and history, and she has worked as an editor, translator and bookseller.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sweet Hills Of Florence by Jan Wallace Dickinson

  1. The novel sounds good, but I don’t really like the idea of Mussolini and Clara as fictional characters, and seeing things from Clara’s point of view.
    Marrying cousins was probably regarded differently from today, even then. Jane Austen’s heroine Fanny married her cousin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s tricky with historical figures of that calibre. I believe they both kept extensive diaries and wrote letters to each other daily, and these were not destroyed after the war, so there’s a lot of primary evidence in existence to build them up from. But Clara was particularly painful, vain and more occupied with the state of her unmanicured fingernails than the state of the country.
      I did try and keep in mind about the cousin thing that yes, there was a time when it was accepted. But even though this is an historical novel, it’s contemporary enough to be taboo. The characters themselves don’t marry and even doubt within the novel that they would be able to. It was one of those scenarios that just didn’t work for me. Not historical enough to go there, I’m afraid!


  2. I liked this one better than you did, but I agree that it is unsettling. As you say, war stories need care and the memories of survivors need to be treated with respect, but the question of memorialising or suppressing the ghosts of evil is an important one. I’ve just read a book which brings the Armenian genocide into focus, and it explores how memorialising that atrocity within a community that resents the suppression of its history, can lead to new violence.
    I don’t know the answer to that issue. My mother, retelling an act of Black and Tan violence in our family history, used to say that every Irish family has a similar story but that passing them on to the next generation only perpetuates hatred. Yet she herself told the story, and I have told it to The Offspring. Perhaps we can’t help ourselves…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such valid points Lisa. I read somewhere, and I honestly can’t remember where, that to speak of and write down Hitler’s name is to ensure his longevity and we should therefore never do so. There’s much to consider about these issues when you crack it all open. But if we never speak of evil, how do we learn from it? With Annabelle at the end of this novel burning her history, I was in two minds. I believe she absolutely had the right to do whatever she wished with that history, but I mourned the loss, and I have no doubt so many people have suppressed their stories for a whole host of reasons. I really enjoy these conversations we have!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Me too:)
        The book I’m reading at the moment (House of Stone) has an interesting take on it. I’ve just read one of the characters talking about how under White Rule, their culture and history has no place in the history that was written, so she is writing plays about her heroic ancestors. I do agree with Fred Khumalo that historical fiction is a powerful tool for telling stories that were suppressed for whatever reason.

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  3. I don’t mind reading some war stories but if they’re full on I try to stay away. My dad was 9 living in East Germany when the second world war started and 4 months off 16 when it ended and the stories he told me would make you cry so every time I read a war story it makes me think of my dad and the horrors he went through, obviously not as horrific as the men fighting in the war but awful nonetheless. I get queasy when I read war stories. Only happy books about Italy for me.

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  5. I’m clearing out my in-box and have come across this post which I clearly missed when it came through. Life was too busy around New Year’s Day obviously.

    I also seem to have liked this book more than you did. I particularly enjoyed the Florentine setting (because Florence is one of my favourite cities) and the history of Italy in the war because I’ve only read a little about that. I liked the Mussolini/Clara parts, partly because they reminded me of De Berniere’s coverage of Mussolini in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I’ve never forgotten the opening chapters to that book.

    It is an ambitious novel, and perhaps attempts too much – and I noted in my review that the detail sometimes made my head spin, and did wonder about its epic nature – but I was so engrossed in all its aspects that it worked for me in the end. I didn’t have the same qualms as you about Annabelle and Enrico’s relationship given cousin marriages are/have been accepted in certain times and places. And, I’m do think we have to keep talking about brutal, violent, cold-hearted behaviour – to remind us just how around the corner it can be (as Christchurch just last week has reminded us yet again). It needs care of course, but ignoring it is not the answer to my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was certainly heavy reading but it just didn’t engage me like I thought it would. But honestly, Jan has good writing skills and I think any future novels from her will be quite good.
      Funnily enough, the cousin thing has popped up in a couple of other books since! I still just can’t swallow it though, I think I’m just the wrong generation to accept it as anything other than taboo. And it also bothers me that the offspring of these cousin couples never seem to have birth defects in the novels. I have come across this in real life, in distant relations who were first cousins that married, and two out of their three children were seriously affected by the close genetics. Sometimes fiction can be just too fictitious if you know what I mean! Idealistic, in a way that I can’t just accept.

      Liked by 1 person

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