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There are several ways to read A House in Sicily. On one level it can be read as a dynamic autobiography, full of insight and anecdotes, beginning with the story of how Phelps came to live at Casa Cuseni.
Phelps, a professionally trained social worker, passed World War II in the United States, traveling around the country and having all kinds of adventures. When she returned to England she was unhappy. Phelps found postwar England austere and stifling and was in the midst of trying to sort out what to do with her life when she received word that she had inherited her uncle's grand house in Taormina, Sicily.
Phelps was excited by the prospect of a trip to Taormina, even if it was only to arrange for the sale of Casa Cuseni. Taormina is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sicily. Famous for its exquisite views, Greek amphitheater, medieval streets, and proximity to Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano, Taormina has attracted international visitors for years.
Like most of southern Italy, however, Taormina has been slow to adopt the conventions of modernity. For most of the latter half of the 20th century the penetration of telephones and televisions was minimal, and cars were few and far between, the patriarchy was well entrenched, and the religious population fervently clung to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Phelps, a trouser-wearing, car-driving, liberated, professional Englishwoman, caused quite a sensation upon her arrival in Taormina. But as she got to know the locals, most of whom revered her uncle, and saw Casa Cuseni, Phelps overlooked the cultural differences between England and Italy and decided to stay. It's no wonder why.
A House in Sicily also can be read as a love letter to Casa Cuseni. Widely considered an architectural treasure, Casa Cuseni has been featured in many magazines and chronicled in several books on Italy. Phelps's descriptions paint Casa Cuseni as a stunning house complemented by gorgeous gardens and breathtaking views of Mount Etna.
Phelps had never intended to turn Casa Cuseni into a hotel. However, when her limited funds began to run out, she realized that taking in guests was the best way to extend her stay in Taormina. But, Phelps is clearly a natural hostess, and the many guests who frequented Casa Cuseni delighted in her hospitality and charm. Some of her more famous guests include Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, and the painter Henry Faulkner.
Although the stories about the famous guests are interesting, more entertaining are the stories about Phelps's Sicilian friends, acquaintances, and her help at Casa Cuseni. Her devoted housekeeper, Concetta; the local Mafia don; and Beppe, the houseboy, are some of the more memorable characters, in some cases eclipsing the house as the star of the book. These character sketches contribute to the vivid portrait of Taormina and the Sicilian way of life, making A House in Sicily an engaging travelogue, too.
Fifty years later, Phelps is as enamored of her home as she was when she first laid eyes on it. "Never have I tired of the ever-changing beauty of the garden, or of the dignity and perfect proportions of the house built in golden stone. And that view...to live opposite Etna, the highest, most active volcano in Europe, is indeed a privilege," Phelps wrote.
After reading A House in Sicily, you too will be enchanted with Casa Cuseni, and you'll be jealous of the lucky guests who had a chance to enjoy it.
—Emily Burg is a journalist who lives in a small, overpriced apartment in New York.