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The Villa Girls by Nicky Pellegrino


It is a premise so desirable and plausible that it has spawned, virtually, a sub-genre of its own, comprising both fictional and factual accounts: that of a woman, of varying ages and in myriad positions of life stasis, fleeing to an exotic (but not too exotic) country in which love, solace and redemption may be found as easily as a ripe olive is plucked from a tree.

British-born Kiwi Nicky Pellegrino, with her Italian ancestors, is as qualified to spin such a yarn as Elizabeth Gilbert or Frances Mayes. In last year’s Recipe for Life, she drew on a painful event in her own past to tell the story of a young woman, listless and lost in London, who decamps to a friend’s Italian villa for the summer and finds vigor, purpose and amor.

The Villa Girls has Pellegrino tapping this vein once more, with the girl in this case, Rosie, having lost both parents in a car accident. An only child, she is left with no one but a cheerless aunt and uncle, and finding herself unwelcome in their home, lives in a depressing rented basement, the gloominess of which reflects the twilight world she has stumbled into.

The bossy Addolorata hoves into view, and more out of a sense of pity than genuine friendship invites the waif-like Rosie on an Italian-villa holiday with her two girlfriends. The experience proves such a revelation for all four that they vow to return to Italy again in three years’ time – but don’t manage to stay away that long.

The story is on the thin side; while Pellegrino has a natural way with words and evident passion for her characters, what the reader savours most are not the outcomes of the chance meetings and accidental eavesdroppings but the descriptions of sumptuous feasts and fetes.

Among the most amusing passages are the meals shared by Addolorata’s family (at the first, Addolorata has to warn Rosie not to accept seconds of her father Beppi’s lasagna – it is only the first of several courses), and the evolution of Rosie’s relationship with food, as she learns to cook at Beppi’s elbow and falls in love with the flavors of Italy as surely as she does Enzo, the heir to an olive fortune whose family harbors a dark secret.

Of the four ‘villa girls’, only Rosie and Addolorata approach the fully-fleshed – Lou and Toni serve primary as plot function (it is Toni who, uncovering that secret, makes a phone call that tips the narrative from the lazily dreamy to something approaching tragedy) or redemptive tale (will Lou be able to conquer her dependency on drink?).

In the end, whatever plot or people flaws might be perceived don’t matter – in a Pellegrino novel, ambience is all. To trail Enzo through a grove of olive trees or listen to his Nonna hold forth, with all the passion of a Mediterranean matriarch, on the purity of the Santi family oil, is to be transported. The Villa Girls is worth the trip.


Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

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