As this novel opens Zoe has just lost her grandmother, a larger than life, charismatic artist who lived in Italy. Zoe and her mum Ange are left grieving in Cornwall, but they grieve differently and Zoe is worried about her mum, who appears to be in a trance but answers ‘fine’ when anyone asks how she is. Fine is a word banned in my counselling room, so I could understand Zoe’s concern. It’s a form of masking how we truly feel. Uncle Reg is dealing with all the legal and financial stuff, holding an auction of his mother’s belongings only a week after her funeral in Italy. Zoe and Ange plan to stay in Cornwall, but Zoe is uneasy about Uncle Reg and so was I. Her grandma promised her the beautiful emerald engagement ring that she claimed had magical properties. So, when Aunt Fanny turns up after being missing for fourteen years, she encourages them to travel out to Italy. She should know if it’s necessary, after all she was once married to Uncle Reg. With a reluctant agreement from Ange, they agree to travel to Italy for three nights only. They must go to grandma’s house and search for the ring before Uncle Reg even knows they’ve left the country.
Our young heroine Zoe shares the narrative in short, snappy sections with her friend Harriet, Mum Ange, and of course, Aunt Fanny. There are times when her voice gets a little lost amongst these other sparky and formidable women, especially Fanny who has chosen this diminutive of her true name Fenella just to see the blushes it causes. Zoe has stayed in her home town since school and works as a high end wedding coordinator. It’s as if she hasn’t really started in life, adept at creating and delivering the dreams of others she has forgotten her own. I loved her sparky little assistant Kitty who was giving off perky Reece Witherspoon vibes. Zoe hasn’t travelled, had a long term relationship or been to university. Her most important relationship is with close friend Harriet who also seems stuck, but we’re given more access to her inner world and she knows she’s treading water. It’s always been just Harriet and her mum, so it was a shock when Mum met someone and now has a newborn baby. They feel like a family and Harriet has felt like she doesn’t belong. Zoe has also had an all female upbringing made up of Mum and Aunt Fanny, along with holidays in Italy with her grandmother. Mum Ange remembers meeting Fanny just after she married her brother Reg and despite being so different they clicked instantly. Fanny is distinctly upmarket and while Reg always seemed embarrassed that his sister and niece were dressed by Next, Fanny never made her feel like that. With Reg working away the two women became Zoe’s parents and Zoe remembers the shock they felt when Fanny left suddenly and never contacted them till now. Zoe doesn’t have the pizzazz or individuality of her aunt or grandmother and it seems she has really suffered from the absence of these women in her life.
I enjoyed the women’s camaraderie and the way they supported each other. Despite seeming a bit disconnected from Mum at the moment, Zoe is devoted to her and wouldn’t think of leaving while she’s in this trancelike state. Aunt Fanny is the backbone of this group and such a formidable woman in her stilettos and her trademark ice-blonde bob that’s never out of place. She is loud, flirtatious and determined to live life to the full. She seems unbreakable and undaunted, buying everyone’s ticket to Italy, convincing Ange to come, overcoming obstacles and hiking in four inch heels! She grabs every opportunity to have fun and takes adversity in her stride, she even encourages the others to let their emotions out. Yet there are so many questions: where has she been for fourteen years? How does she keep her bob so immaculate? Does she really have a fortune from inventing a nail file? Why does she have other people’s credit cards? And why did she leave in the first place?
There is some romance too, with a love interest for Zoe in red-headed Sam who she meets by knocking a drink over him at the airport and pops up in the most unexpected places. They have a first date in Grandma’s town and I loved the women helping her get ready, just like they would when she was younger and going out. Even our older ladies (my age actually) have their flirtations, but this book is mainly about personal transformation though and finding your authentic self – something that’s not always easy for women who are bombarded with messages about who and how they should be. This is personified by Zoe’s grandmother whose presence is huge, despite her absence. I felt the book would have really benefited from more flashback moments between her, Ange and Zoe. She’s present in the laidback town where she lives, in her hillside home, and most of all in her paintings. The painting that’s a self-portrait of grandma in dungarees with her paint brushes in her pocket, seems to leap off the page with her life force. The depth and number of vivid colours show how vivacious she is and captures her love of life. It’s just so perfectly her, living her best life. I couldn’t bear to think of this stunning painting being sold at the auction. Even more than the engagement ring, it would have been the thing I had to keep. All I kept hoping was that Zoe could take some of grandma’s magic and apply it to her own life, to find out who she truly was and live her own fabulous, authentic life.
Thank you so much to Headline Review, Olivia Beirne and the Squad Pod Collective for the chance to read this book.
Meet the Author
Olivia Beirne is the bestselling author of The List That Changed My Life, The Accidental Love Letter and House Swap. She has worked as a waitress, a (terrible) pottery painter and a casting assistant, but being a writer is definitely her favourite job yet. Three Nights in Italy is her fourth novel.