Last Voyage of the Valentina

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Overview

Exotically beautiful but desperately unhappy, Alba lives on a houseboat on the Thames, where she enjoys a life of leisure and entertains an endless and unfulfilling succession of lovers. But then she discovers a portrait of her dead mother, Valentina — a woman she'd hardly known, whose story has been kept from her by her still grieving father. Determined to learn the truth about Valentina, Alba returns to the olive groves of the Amalfi coast of Italy. There she uncovers a mysterious tale of decadence, deception, ...

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Overview

Exotically beautiful but desperately unhappy, Alba lives on a houseboat on the Thames, where she enjoys a life of leisure and entertains an endless and unfulfilling succession of lovers. But then she discovers a portrait of her dead mother, Valentina — a woman she'd hardly known, whose story has been kept from her by her still grieving father. Determined to learn the truth about Valentina, Alba returns to the olive groves of the Amalfi coast of Italy. There she uncovers a mysterious tale of decadence, deception, murder, and betrayal involving partisans and Nazis, peasants and counts. Alba's journey leads her not only to the truth of her mother's hidden past but to the possibility of happiness in her own future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Long-legged, lascivious Alba lives on a London houseboat, the Valentina, moored in 1971 London. She is the daughter of a WWII romance; her proper English father, Thomas Arbuckle, and stepmother ("the Buffalo") never mention her mysterious Italian mother-Valentina-who died when she was a baby. As a discovered sketch sparks Alba's curiosity about her mother's past, she takes up with literary agent Fitz Conroy, then breaks it off and goes to Italy to learn the truth about her past. Though this is Montefiore's U.S. debut, more than three million copies of her books are in print in the EU (the press chat notes that Charles and Camilla "made their debut as a couple" at Montefiore's wedding to historian Simon Sebag). Presumably, her EU translators were able to make lines like "Don't talk, you fool. Kiss me," sound more seductive and surprising in other languages than they do in the King's English. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This historical romance sandwiched within a contemporary is the London author's first book to be published in the United States. The daughter of a World War II English soldier and an Italian woman who died young, 26-year-old Alba Arbuckle is drifting, seeking solace in promiscuity. On finding a hidden drawing in the houseboat named after her mother, Valentina, Alba decides to explore her roots, since her reserved father won't give any details. When she visits the rustic Italian village where Valentina lived, Alba discovers truths about herself as well as her mother. The author seems to be striving for Rosamunde Pilcher's depth, hoping to move from romance into the broader "women's fiction" genre-a reading group guide is included. But character transformations come too quickly; awkwardly shifting time periods and points of view give the story a hurried, jerky feel; and the symbolism is obvious. Fans of Elizabeth Adler, hungry for more romanticized visions of Italy's Amalfi coast, might like this story, but, unfortunately, it lacks both Pilcher's complex characters and Adler's light, humorous touch. An optional purchase.-Laurie A. Cavanaugh, Brockton P.L., MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Popular British novelist Montefiore, a media glam girl who hangs with the likes of Prince Charles, enters the U.S. market with a murder-romance that travels between swinging 1970s London and WWII Italy. Strikingly beautiful half-Italian Alba has always felt herself an outsider and resented her wealthy, conventional father Thomas and stepmother Margo. At 26, Alba lives in London on her father's houseboat, the Valentina, and keeps herself occupied with sex and shopping. One day she finds a rolled-up portrait of her mother, Valentina, who died shortly after her birth and is never mentioned by her father (other than in the naming of his boat). Novelist neighbor Viv suggests that Alba enlist Viv's attractive agent Fitz to pretend to be her boyfriend in order to help discover what secrets about Valentina her father is hiding. The ruse works. Plus, Fitz and Alba fall in love, but he wisely tells her she must go to Italy alone to find her roots. Once there, Alba quickly finds herself reevaluating her identity. In her mother's village, she meets her family and slowly uncovers the secrets of Valentina's death. Meanwhile, the portrait of his dead love has caused Thomas to remember their tragic affair, carrying readers back with him to WWII. Captain of a motor torpedo boat, Thomas stopped briefly in Valentina's war-ravaged village and promptly fell in love with her. He promised to return after learning Valentina was pregnant, and he kept his word, but she was murdered on the eve of their wedding. Gradually Alba realizes that her father was protecting her from unpleasant truths about her duplicitous mother. She returns to England planning to marry Fitz but finds it hard to resist the pull of Italy.Old-fashioned, sentimental melodrama, written with finesse and page-turning energy.
From the Publisher
"Escape into a world of ardent love and doomed desire..."
InStyle (UK)

"If you are a fan of the old-fashioned blockbuster and are fond of a little Rosamunde Pilcher-style nostalgia, this is just the ticket."
Glamour (UK)

"The stuff of delicious escapism."
The Sunday Times (UK)

"Sensual, sensitive and complex...a passionate page-turning life journey and a dark mystery that sweeps from war-torn Italy to aristocratic 1960s London."
— Plum Sykes, author of Bergdorf Blondes

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786289745
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/2006
  • Edition description: Large Print Edition
  • Pages: 558
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Santa Montefiore is the author of several bestselling novels, including The French Gardener, The Summer House, and The Mermaid Garden. She lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Last Voyage of the Valentina


By Santa Montefiore

Touchstone

Copyright © 2006 Santa Montefiore
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743276868

Chapter One

London 1971

He's enjoying the attentions of that young man again," said Viv, standing on the deck of her houseboat. Although it was a balmy spring evening, she pulled her tasseled shawl about her shoulders and took a long drag of her cigarette.

"Not spying again, darling!" said Fitz with a wry smile.

"One can't help noticing the comings and goings of that girl's lovers." Viv narrowed her hooded eyes and inhaled through dilated nostrils.

"Anyone would think you were jealous," Fitz commented, grimacing as he took a sip of cheap French wine. In all the years he had been Viv's friend and agent she had never once bought a bottle of good wine.

"I'm a writer. It's my business to be curious about people. Alba's engaging. She's a very selfish creature, but one can't help being drawn to her. The ubiquitous moth to the flame. Though, in my case, not a moth at all but a rather beautifully dressed butterfly." She wandered across the deck and draped herself over a chair, spreading her blue and pink caftan about her like silken wings. "Still, I enjoy her life. It'll do for a book one day, when we're no longer friends. I think Alba's like that. She enjoys people, then moves on. In our case, it shall be I who moves on. By then, the dramas ofher life will no longer entertain me and, besides, I'll have grown bored of the Thames too. My old bones will ache from the damp, and the creaking and bumping will keep me up at night. Then I shall buy a small chateau in France and retire to obscurity, fame having become a bore too." She sucked in her cheeks and grinned at Fitz. But Fitz was no longer listening, although it was his job to.

"Do you think they pay for it?" he said, putting his hands on the railing and looking down into the muddy water of the Thames. Beside him, Sprout, his old springer spaniel, lay sleeping on a blanket.

"Certainly not!" she retorted. "Her father owns the boat. She's not having to fork out twelve pounds a week in rent, I assure you."

"Then she's simply liberated."

"Just like everyone else of her generation. Following the herd. It bores me. I was before my time, Fitzroy. I took lovers and smoked cannabis long before the Albas of this world knew of the existence of either. Now I prefer bog standard Silva Thins and celibacy. I'm fifty, too old to be a slave to fashion. It's all so frivolous and childish. Better to set my mind on higher things. You may be a good ten years younger than me, Fitzroy, but I can tell the world of fashion bores you too."

"I don't think Alba would bore me."

"But you, my dear, would bore her, eventually. You might think you're a swaggering Lothario, Fitzroy, but you'd meet your match in Alba. She isn't like other girls. I'm not saying you'd have trouble bedding her, but keeping her, now that's a very different story. She likes variety. Her lovers don't last long. I've seen them come and go. It's always the same, they skip up the gangplank; then, when it's all over, they plod off like ill-treated mongrels. She'd have you for dinner then spit you out like a chicken bone, and that would be a shock, wouldn't it, darling? I bet no one's ever done that to you before. It's called karma. What goes around, comes around. Pay you back for breaking so many hearts. Anyway, at your age, you should be looking for your third wife, not a transitory thrill. You should be settling down. Set your heart on one woman and keep it there. She's fiery because she's half Italian."

"Ah, that explains the dark hair and honey skin."

Viv looked at him askance and her thin lips extended into an even thinner smile.

"But those very pale eyes, strange..." He sighed, no longer noticing the taste of cheap wine.

"Her mother was Italian. She died when Alba was born. In a car crash, I think. Has a horrid stepmother and a bore for a father. Navy, you know. Still there, the old fossil. Has had the same desk job since the war, I suspect. Commutes every day, very dreary. Captain Thomas Arbuckle, and he's definitely a Thomas and not a Tommy. Not like you, who are more of a Fitz than a Fitzroy, though I do love the name Fitzroy and shall continue to use it regardless. No wonder Alba rebelled."

"Her father might be a bore, but he's a rich bore." Fitz ran his eyes over the shiny wooden houseboat that gently rocked from the motion of the tide. Or from Alba's lovemaking. The thought made his stomach cramp competitively.

"Money doesn't bring happiness. You should know that, Fitzroy."

Fitz stared into his glass a moment, reflecting on his own fortune that had brought him only avaricious wives and expensive divorces.

"Does she live alone?"

"She used to live with one of her half sisters, but it didn't work out. I can't imagine the girl's easy to live with, God bless her. The trouble with you, Fitzroy, is that you fall in love much too easily. If you could keep control of your heart, life would be a lot simpler for you. You could just bed her and get her out of your system. Ah, about time too! You're late!" she exclaimed as her nephew Wilfrid hurried down the pontoon with his girlfriend Georgia in tow, full of apologies. Viv could be quite fearsome when they showed up late for bridge.

The Valentina was a houseboat unlike any other on Cheyne Walk. The curve of the prow was pretty, upturned, coy as if she were trying to contain a knowing smile. The house itself was painted blue and white with round windows and a balcony where pots spilled over with flowers in springtime and leaks let in the rain during the winter months. Like a face that betrays the life it has lived, so the eccentric dip in the line of the roof and the charming slope of the bow, like a rather imperious nose, revealed that perhaps she had lived many lives. The overriding characteristic of the Valentina, therefore, was her mystery. Like a grande dame who would never be seen without her makeup, the Valentina would not reveal what lay beneath her paint. Her mistress, however, loved her not for her unusual features, or her charm or indeed her uniqueness. Alba Arbuckle loved her boat for a very different reason.

"God, Alba, you're beautiful!" Rupert sighed, burying his face in her softly perfumed neck. "You taste of sugared almonds." Alba giggled, thinking him absurd, but unable to resist the sensation of his bristles that scratched and tickled and his hand that had already found its way past her blue suede clog boots and up her Mary Quant skirt. She wriggled with pleasure and lifted her chin.

"Don't talk, you fool. Kiss me."

This he did, determined to please her. He was heartened that she had suddenly come alive in his arms after a sulky supper in Chelsea. He pressed his lips to hers, relieved that as long as he entertained her tongue she couldn't use it to abuse him. Alba had a way of saying the most hurtful things through the sweetest, most beguiling, smile. And yet, those pale gray eyes of hers, like a moor on a misty winter morning, aroused a strange kind of pity that was disarming. Drew a man in. Made him yearn to protect her. To love her was easy, to keep her unlikely. But along with the other hopefuls who walked the well-trodden deck of the Valentina, he couldn't help but try.

Alba opened her eyes as he unbuttoned her blouse and took a nipple in his mouth. She looked up through the skylight to wispy pink clouds and the first twinkle of a star. Overwhelmed by the unexpected beauty of the dying day she momentarily let down her guard and her spirit was at once filled with sadness. It flooded her being and brought tears to those pale gray eyes, tears that stung. Her loneliness gnawed and ached, and nothing seemed to cure it. Appalled by the ill timing of such weakness she wound her legs around her lover and rolled over so that she sat on top, kissing and biting and clawing him like a wild cat. Rupert was stunned but more excited than ever. He eagerly ran his hands up her naked thighs to discover she wore no pants. Her buttocks lay smooth and exposed for him to caress with impatient fingers. Then he was inside her and she was riding him vigorously, as if aware only of the pleasure and not of the man who was providing it. Rupert gazed upon her in awe, longing to put his mouth to her lips that were slightly parted and bruised. She looked wanton and yet, in spite of her lack of inhibition, she possessed a vulnerability that made him yearn to hold her close.

Soon Rupert's thoughts were lost in the excitement of their lovemaking. He closed his eyes and surrendered to his desire, no longer lucid enough to contemplate her lovely face. They writhed and rolled over the piles of discarded clothes on the bed until they exploded onto the floor with a thud, out of breath and laughing. She looked at his surprised face with eyes that shone and said with a throaty chuckle, "What did you expect? The Virgin Mary?"

"That was wonderful. You're an angel," he sighed, kissing her forehead. She raised her eyebrows and laughed at him.

"I do think you're absurd, Rupert. God would throw me out of Heaven for misbehaving."

"Then that is not the Heaven for me."

Suddenly her attention was diverted by a brown scroll of paper that had been dislodged from between the wooden slats under the bed. She couldn't reach from where she was lying, so she pushed Rupert away and crawled around to the other side. She stretched her arm beneath the bed.

"What is it?" he asked, blinking at her through a postcoital daze.

"I don't know," she replied. As she stood up, she grabbed her cigarette packet and lighter from the bedside table and threw them at him. "Light me one, will you?" Then she sat on the edge of the bed and slowly unfurled the scroll of paper.

Rupert didn't smoke. In fact, he loathed cigarettes, but not wanting to appear gauche, he did as she asked, throwing himself onto the bed beside her and running an appreciative hand down her back. She stiffened. Without looking at him she said, "I've enjoyed you, Rupert. But now I want to be alone."

"What is it?" he asked, astounded that she could suddenly turn so cold.

"I said, I want to be alone." For a moment he was unsure how to react. No woman had ever treated him like that. He felt humiliated. When he saw that she wasn't going to change her mind, he reluctantly began to dress, clutching at the intimacy they had shared only moments before.

"Will I see you again?" He was aware that he sounded desperate.

She shook her head, irritated. "Just go!"

He did up his shoelaces. She still hadn't looked at him. Her attention was entirely captivated by the scroll. It was as if he had already gone.

"Well, I'll just let myself out then," he mumbled.

She lifted her eyes to the glass doors that gave on to the upper deck and stared at the pink evening sky, now dissolving into night. She did not hear the door slam or Rupert's heavy footsteps as he trod gloomily up the gangplank, only the whisper of a voice she thought she had forgotten.

"Oh dear! Someone doesn't look very happy," commented Fitz as Rupert made his way to Chelsea Embankment and disappeared beneath the street lamps. His comment suspended their game of bridge for a moment. Sprout cocked his ears and raised his drooping eyes before closing them again with a sigh.

"Well, she does get through them, darling," said Viv, curling a stray wisp of blond hair behind her ear. "She's like a black widow."

"I thought they ate their mates," said Wilfrid. Fitz contemplated that delicious thought before placing a card on the table with a snap.

"Who are we talking about?" asked Georgia, crinkling her nose at Wilfrid.

"Viv's neighbor," he replied.

"She's a tart," added Viv caustically, winning the trick and swiping it over to her side of the table.

"I thought you were friends."

"We are, Fitzroy. I love her in spite of her faults. After all, we all have them, don't we?" She grinned and flicked ash into a fluorescent green dish.

"Not you, Viv. You're perfect."

"Thank you, Fitzroy," she replied, then turned to Georgia and added with a wink, "I pay him to say that."

Fitz glanced out of the little round window. The deck of the Valentina was still and quiet. He imagined the beautiful Alba lying naked on her bed, flushed and smiling, with curves and mounds in all the right places, and was momentarily distracted from the game.

"Wake up, Fitz!" said Wilfrid, snapping his fingers. "What planet are you on?"

Viv placed her cards on the table and sat back. She took a drag of her cigarette and exhaled with a loud puff. Gazing upon him with eyes made heavy from drink and the excesses of life, she said, "Oh, the same sad planet as so many other foolish men!"

Alba stared at the portrait sketched in pastels on the scroll of brown paper and felt a rush of emotion. It was as if she were looking into a mirror, but one that increased the loveliness of her image. The face was oval, like hers, with fine cheekbones and a strong, determined jaw, but the eyes weren't hers at all. They were almond-shaped, mossy brown in color, a mixture of laughter and a deep, unfathomable sadness. They held her attention, stared right back at her and through her and, when she moved, they followed her. She gazed into them for a long while, swallowed up in hopes and dreams that never bore fruit. Although the mouth only hinted at a smile, the whole face seemed to open with happiness like a sunflower. Alba's stomach twisted with longing. For the first time in as long as she could remember, she was staring into the face of her mother. At the bottom of the picture, written in Latin, were the words Valentina 1943, dum spiro, ti amo. It was signed in ink Thomas Arbuckle. Alba re-read those words a dozen times until they blurred with her tears. "While I breathe, I love you."

Alba had learned Italian as a child. In an unusual moment of charity her stepmother, the Buffalo, had suggested she take lessons in order to maintain some contact with her Mediterranean roots, roots that in every other way the woman had tried to eradicate. After all, Alba's mother had been the love of her father's life. And what a great love it had been. Her stepmother was all too aware of the shadow Valentina cast over her marriage. Unable to erase so powerful a memory, all she could do was attempt to smother it. So Valentina's name was simply never mentioned. They had never traveled to Italy. Alba knew none of her mother's relatives, and her father avoided her questions, so she had long since given up asking. As a child she had shrunk into an isolated world of patchwork facts that she had managed to sew together by devious means. She would retreat into that world and derive comfort from the invented images of her beautiful mother on the shores of the sleepy Italian town where she had met and fallen in love with her father during the war.

Thomas Arbuckle had been handsome then; Alba had seen photographs. In his naval uniform he had cut quite a dash. Sandy hair and pale eyes and a cheeky, confident grin that the Buffalo had managed, with the sheer weight of her forceful personality, to reduce to a disgruntled scowl. Jealous of the houseboat he had bought and named after Valentina, the Buffalo had never set foot on its deck, referring to it as "that boat" and not by its name. The Valentina conjured up memories of cypress trees and crickets, olive groves and lemons, and a love so great that no amount of stamping and snorting could denigrate it.

Alba had never felt she truly belonged in her father's house. Her half siblings were physical reflections of their parents but she was dark and alien, like her mother. Her half siblings rode horses, picked blackberries, and played bridge, but she dreamed of the Mediterranean and olive groves. No amount of shouting at her stepmother and father had extracted the truth or compelled them to take her to Italy where she might get to know her real family. So she had moved into the houseboat that carried her mother's sacred name. There she felt Valentina's ethereal presence, heard her voice in the rise and fall of the tides a mere whisper away, and cocooned herself in her love.

She lay on the bed, beneath the skylight through which the stars now glimmered in their hundreds and the moon had replaced the sun. Rupert might just as well have never been there. Alba was alone with her mother, her soft voice speaking through the portrait, caressing her daughter with those soft, sorrowful eyes. Surely this picture would melt the layers of ice that had built up over the years and her father would remember and talk about her.

Alba did not waste any time. She rummaged around the untidy cupboards for suitable clothes, placed the scroll carefully into her bag, and hurried down the narrow staircase and out of the boat. A couple of squirrels were playing tag on the roof and she shooed them away irritably before setting off up the gangplank.

At that moment Fitz, having lost at bridge, was leaving Viv's houseboat, light-headed with wine and startled by the coincidence that set his path and Alba's in tandem. He didn't notice that she had been crying and she didn't notice Sprout. "Good evening," he said cheerfully, determined to ignite a conversation as they walked up the gangway toward the Embankment. Alba did not reply. "I'm Fitzroy Davenport, a friend of your neighbor, Viv."

"Oh," she replied in a flat tone. Her eyes were fixed on the ground, partly obscured behind her hair. She crossed her arms and dug her chin into her chest.

"Can I give you a lift somewhere? My car's parked around the corner."

"So is mine."

"Ah."

Fitz was surprised she didn't even raise her eyes. He was used to being looked at by women and was well aware that he was handsome, especially when he smiled, and he was tall, which was an advantage; girls always fancied tall men. Her lack of interest unbalanced him. He watched her long legs striding out, clad in blue suede boots, and felt the anxiety tighten about his throat. Her loveliness debilitated him completely.

"I've just lost at bridge," he persevered frantically. "Do you play?"

"Not if I can help it," she replied.

He felt foolish. "Very wise. Dull game."

"Like the players," she retorted, then gave a small smile before climbing into a two-seater MGB and disappearing down the road. Fitz was left alone under the street lamp, scratching his head, unsure whether to be offended or amused.

Alone in the car where no one could see her, Alba sobbed. She could fool everyone else with her bravado, but there was no point trying to fool herself. The sense of loss that had overwhelmed her earlier now resurfaced and this time with greater intensity. Her isolated world of cypress trees and olive groves was no longer sufficient. She had a right to know about her mother. Now she had the picture, the Buffalo would be forced to step back and let her father talk. How it had got there, she didn't know. Maybe he had put it there so the Buffalo wouldn't find it. Now she would know because Alba would tell her. It would be a pleasure. She changed gear and turned into the Talgarth Road.

It was late. They wouldn't be expecting her. It would take her a good hour and a half to get to Hampshire in spite of the clear roads. Not a cat on them. She turned on the radio to hear Cliff Richard singing "Those miss-you nights are the longest," and her tears cascaded all the more. Out of the darkness and into her headlights her mother's face loomed. With long dark hair and soft, mossy brown eyes, she gazed upon her daughter with enough love and understanding to heal the entire world. Alba imagined she would have smelled of lemons. She had not a single memory, a single recollection of her scent. She had only her imagination and who knows what falsehoods that conjured up.

It was easy to see why the Buffalo hated Valentina. Margo Arbuckle wasn't beautiful. She was a big lady with sturdy legs better suited to Wellington boots than stilettos, a large bottom that molded well into the saddle of a horse and freckly English skin bare of makeup and washed with Imperial Leather soap. Her style of dress was appalling, tweed skirts and billowing blouses. Her bosom was substantial and she had lost any waist she once had. Alba wondered what her father had seen in her. Perhaps the pain of losing Valentina had driven him to choose a wife who was the opposite of her. But wouldn't it have been better to live with her memory than to compromise in such a pitiful way?

As for the children they had had together, well, they had wasted no time in that department. Alba had been born in 1945, the year her mother died, and Caroline only three years later in 1948. It was shameful. Her father had barely had time to mourn. He had certainly not had time to get to know her child, the one he should have loved more than anyone else in the world as the living part of the woman he had lost. After Caroline came Henry and then Miranda; with each child Alba was pushed a little further into her world of pine and olive groves and her father was too busy making another family to notice how she cried. But it wasn't her family. God, she thought unhappily, does he ever sit down and think what he's done to me? Now she had the portrait, she was determined to tell him.

She turned off the A30 and headed down narrow winding lanes. Her headlights illuminated the hedgerows bursting with cow parsley and the odd rabbit that darted hastily back into the bushes. She rolled down the window and sniffed the air like a dog, taking pleasure from the sweet scents of spring that swept in with the rattling sound of the motor. She imagined her father smoking his after-dinner cigar and swirling brandy in one of those large, swollen-bellied glasses he was so fond of. Margo would be rabbiting on about Caroline's thrilling new job in a Mayfair art gallery owned by a family friend and Henry's latest news from Sandhurst. Miranda was still at boarding school -- little to report there except top grades and fawning teachers. How dreadfully dull and conventional, Alba thought. Predictable. Their lives would all run accordingly, along tracks laid down at their birth like perfect little trains. "The runaway train came down the track and she blew, she blew...," sang Alba, her misery lifting as she contemplated her unconventional, independent existence that ran along a track entirely of her own making.

Finally she turned into the driveway that swept up for about a quarter of a mile beneath tall copper beech trees. She could just make out a couple of horses in the field to her right, their eyes shining like silver as they caught the lights of her car. Hideous beasts, she thought sourly. Amazing they weren't all buckling at the knees considering the weight of the Buffalo. She wondered whether the woman rode her father like she rode her horses. She couldn't help but giggle at the thought, then swiftly dismissed it. Old people weren't into that sort of thing.

The wheels of the car scrunched up the gravel in front of the house. The lights blazed invitingly but Alba knew they didn't blaze for her. How Margo must resent her, she thought. It would be easier to wipe away Valentina's memory if she weren't around as a constant reminder. She parked her car beneath the imposing walls of the house that had once been her home. With its tall chimneys and old, weathered brick and flint it had withstood gales and storms for well over 300 years. Her great-great-grandfather had apparently won it at the gambling table, but not before he had lost his wife as a consequence of his addiction. She had swiftly become mistress to some duke who had an addiction of similar proportions but a much deeper pocket with which to indulge it. Alba rather liked the idea of the mistress; her stepmother had forever tainted her concept of marriage.

She sat in the car, contemplating the picture while three small dogs scurried out of the darkness to sniff the wheels and wag their stumpy tails. When her stepmother's face appeared around the door she had no option but to climb out and greet her. Margo looked pleased to see her though her smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "Alba, what a lovely surprise! You should have telephoned," she said, holding the door so that the orange light flooded the steps leading up to the porch. Alba went through the ritual of kissing her. She smelled of talcum powder and Yardley's Lily of the Valley. Around her neck hung a fat golden locket that rose up and down on the ledge of her breasts. Alba blinked away the image she had conjured up in the car of Margo riding her father like one of her horses.

She walked into the hall where the walls were wood-paneled and hung with austere portraits of deceased relatives. At once she smelled the sweet scent of her father's cigar and her courage flagged. He emerged from the drawing room in a green smoking jacket and slippers. His hair, although thinning, was still sandy and brushed back off his forehead, accentuating pale eyes that appraised her steadily. For a fleeting moment Alba was able to see beyond the heavy build and extended belly, past the ruddy skin and disgruntled twist of his mouth, to the handsome young man he had been in the war. Before he had sought comfort and oblivion in convention and routine. When he had still loved her mother.

"Ah, Alba, my dear. To what do we owe this pleasure?" He kissed her temple, as he always did, and his voice was thick and grainy like the gravel outside. Jovial, inscrutable; the young man had gone.

"I was just passing," she lied.

"Good," he replied. "Come on in for a tipple and tell us what you've been up to."

Copyright 2005 by Santa Montefiore



Continues...


Excerpted from Last Voyage of the Valentina by Santa Montefiore Copyright © 2006 by Santa Montefiore. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Introduction

INTRODUCTION

Alba Arbuckle always feels like an outsider. She hardly knew her Italian mother, Valentina, and her English father acts as if Valentina never existed. Alba despises country life almost as much as she despises her stepmother and stepsisters. On board the London houseboat named after her dead mother, Alba's life is little more than a selfish search for fun and pleasure.

But the discovery of her mother's portrait sends Alba back to Italy to find her family - and the truth about Valentina. Amid the olive groves of the Amalfi coast, she discovers a tale of deception and betrayal revealing a secret web of partisans and Nazis, peasants and counts, and ultimately a forbidden truth. What Alba finds in the past is heartrending, but it's the gateway to her own future.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. The prologue opens the book with a gruesome murder, and yet the central action of the story is of love and self realization. How does this killing frame your reading of the story? When did you realize the identities of the killers?

2. The book begins with Fitz and Viv watching Alba. Later [ms. p. 156] Cook watches Alba rummage through her father's desk. Discuss the point of view of the narrator in the story and how the author uses various vantage points to tell the story. What role does spying play in revealing secrets to the reader throughout the story?

3. Lavender Arbuckle says [ms. p. 26], "A woman is nothing without a man by her side. Nothing without children." With all that she has learned, gained and lost by the end of the story, would Alba agree with her fully?

4. Discuss the similarities and differences between Lavender Arbuckle and Immacolata. What doeseach one offer Alba? Who do you think is the better grandmother?

5. Although Alba "only attended church to irritate the Buffalo in her short skirt and to show off her boyfriend" [ms. p. 151], as the service continued Alba "didn't think about sex. She didn't dwell on Fitz's kiss. For once in her life, Alba Arbuckle thought about God." [ms. p. 152] What role does religion play in the story? How does attending church affect Alba's decision making?

6. The story is divided into three portraits. What is the relation of the segmented form of the story to the content of the story? What do each one of these distinct paintings by Thomas Arbuckle reveal about Valentina? Do they also reveal something about Alba, or women in general?

7. What does Alba see in Fitz that allows her to fall so hard and so fast for him? Unlike her other boyfriends he does not send her flowers after they have a spat, so what does he add to her life that her other boyfriends did not?

8. After Alba cuts her hair Falco asks her, "Who are you running from, Alba?" Why does Alba make such a drastic change to her appearance? What does this change in her symbolize? Does this change accomplish what she wants it to?

9. Although Alba had never been back to Italy after she left it as a baby, Immacolata says that "Alba is home" [ms. p. 266] when she is in Incantellaria. At the end of the story Alba's physical home, the boat The Valentina, is scuttled. Where do you think home is for Alba?

10. Valentina says that "War reduces men to animals and turns women into shameful creatures." To what extent is the war to blame for the tragedy that befalls Valentina? To what extent is human nature at fault?

11. Alba begins the story living on the water and ends up living on dry land, yet far away from where she spent most of her life. What do water and land each represent in the story?

12. What were your feelings about Alba's decision to leave Fitz and return to Incantellaria at the end of the story? What does Alba's choice say about the strength of family bonds versus the strength of love? Do you agree with her decision?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. To see photos of the Italian coast described in the book check out from your local library Amalfi: Italy's Divine Coast by Assunta Cuozzo and Bonavoglia Rosario or Hidden Naples and the Amalfi Coast by Cesare Cunaccia.

2. Buy or rent Italian folk music to play at your group meeting when you discuss the book. Some popular choices include: Mandolins from Italy: 24 Most Popular Melodies by Joel Perri and Italian Treasury: Folk Music & Song of Italy by Alan Lomax.

3. Cook an Italian meal for your book group. Some excellent Italian cookbooks from Simon & Schuster include: The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Williams-Sonoma Collection: Italian by Pamela Sheldon Johns.

Santa Montefiore's novels have been translated into twenty languages and have sold more than three million copies in England and Europe. She studied Spanish and Italian at Exeter University. She lives in London with her husband, historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore, and their two children.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Alba Arbuckle always feels like an outsider. She hardly knew her Italian mother, Valentina, and her English father acts as if Valentina never existed. Alba despises country life almost as much as she despises her stepmother and stepsisters. On board the London houseboat named after her dead mother, Alba's life is little more than a selfish search for fun and pleasure.

But the discovery of her mother's portrait sends Alba back to Italy to find her family - and the truth about Valentina. Amid the olive groves of the Amalfi coast, she discovers a tale of deception and betrayal revealing a secret web of partisans and Nazis, peasants and counts, and ultimately a forbidden truth. What Alba finds in the past is heartrending, but it's the gateway to her own future.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. The prologue opens the book with a gruesome murder, and yet the central action of the story is of love and self realization. How does this killing frame your reading of the story? When did you realize the identities of the killers?

2. The book begins with Fitz and Viv watching Alba. Later [ms. p. 156] Cook watches Alba rummage through her father's desk. Discuss the point of view of the narrator in the story and how the author uses various vantage points to tell the story. What role does spying play in revealing secrets to the reader throughout the story?

3. Lavender Arbuckle says [ms. p. 26], "A woman is nothing without a man by her side. Nothing without children." With all that she has learned, gained and lost by the end of the story, would Alba agree with her fully?

4. Discuss the similarities and differences between Lavender Arbuckle and Immacolata. What does each one offer Alba? Who do you think is the better grandmother?

5. Although Alba "only attended church to irritate the Buffalo in her short skirt and to show off her boyfriend" [ms. p. 151], as the service continued Alba "didn't think about sex. She didn't dwell on Fitz's kiss. For once in her life, Alba Arbuckle thought about God." [ms. p. 152] What role does religion play in the story? How does attending church affect Alba's decision making?

6. The story is divided into three portraits. What is the relation of the segmented form of the story to the content of the story? What do each one of these distinct paintings by Thomas Arbuckle reveal about Valentina? Do they also reveal something about Alba, or women in general?

7. What does Alba see in Fitz that allows her to fall so hard and so fast for him? Unlike her other boyfriends he does not send her flowers after they have a spat, so what does he add to her life that her other boyfriends did not?

8. After Alba cuts her hair Falco asks her, "Who are you running from, Alba?" Why does Alba make such a drastic change to her appearance? What does this change in her symbolize? Does this change accomplish what she wants it to?

9. Although Alba had never been back to Italy after she left it as a baby, Immacolata says that "Alba is home" [ms. p. 266] when she is in Incantellaria. At the end of the story Alba's physical home, the boat The Valentina, is scuttled. Where do you think home is for Alba?

10. Valentina says that "War reduces men to animals and turns women into shameful creatures." To what extent is the war to blame for the tragedy that befalls Valentina? To what extent is human nature at fault?

11. Alba begins the story living on the water and ends up living on dry land, yet far away from where she spent most of her life. What do water and land each represent in the story?

12. What were your feelings about Alba's decision to leave Fitz and return to Incantellaria at the end of the story? What does Alba's choice say about the strength of family bonds versus the strength of love? Do you agree with her decision?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. To see photos of the Italian coast described in the book check out from your local library Amalfi: Italy's Divine Coast by Assunta Cuozzo and Bonavoglia Rosario or Hidden Naples and the Amalfi Coast by Cesare Cunaccia.

2. Buy or rent Italian folk music to play at your group meeting when you discuss the book. Some popular choices include: Mandolins from Italy: 24 Most Popular Melodies by Joel Perri and Italian Treasury: Folk Music & Song of Italy by Alan Lomax.

3. Cook an Italian meal for your book group. Some excellent Italian cookbooks from Simon & Schuster include: The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Williams-Sonoma Collection: Italian by Pamela Sheldon Johns.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2014

    Another great read from Santa

    Though I was not initially impressed with Alba, I admire her determination to discover all she could about her mother. The setting in one of the world's most magnificent places is magnetic. The reality of the WWIi setting is realistic. I enjoyed this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2012

    Post anonymous 2012

    Loved it-so enjoy her books

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  • Posted November 2, 2008

    WORST BOOK I HAVE EVER READ

    I never write reviews, and I have rarely met a book I didn't like. That being said, this book was AWFUL. Good premise, horrible execution. I bought it based on previous reviews, and had to put my two cents in so that others did not suffer the same fate. The main character was insipid, rude, selfish, and even in the end really unaware of how horrible of a person she was. There was an awkward attempt 3/4 of the way through the book to "redeem" the character, which really fell flat. By that point, I disliked her so much I was rooting for her NOT to hook up with the obligatory nice guy, because I HATED her, and even his minimal character development was enough to put me on his side.<BR/>Buyers be warned: I am in my 4th year of fellowship, so I will read just about anything for fun, and as long as it's not trying to teach me something, I will almost always enjoy it. This book actually went into the garbage as opposed to the hospital library, that's how much I hated it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2008

    captivating story

    I read this book last summer and couldn't put it down. I usually read Danielle Steel I thought I'd give something different a try. After the few pages of Alba's life on a house boat and her very colorful neighbors. I especially loved the descriptions of her family. The story line kept you hooked till the end. I highly recommend this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2007

    takes you away!

    It was really good and you really feel like you are in Italy lookin at the Olive Groves. Alba, the main character is also quite a character. This story has love, mystery, little bit of history, and even some action. Definately recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2006

    Summer Reading With A Plus!

    At first introduction the main character of this story, Alba, appears nothing more than a spoiled, self-indulgent young woman who blames her father and her stepmother for all of her problems. Not until she finds a portrait of her mother and is encouraged to visit Italy to find out her history does this story get interesting. The author keeps the story rolling along and includes some very interesting characters including Viv her author/neighbor, Fitz, an older man who falls immediately in love with Alba but has some good advice to offer and gives her room to grow. Then there are the Italian family members, including Cosimo, a beautiful, sweet child that Alba grows to love, tugging at her maternal instincts. I think that this would be a good summer read, light, romantic, with just a bit of history thrown in. A step above chick-lit. It might be just the ticket for book clubs looking for something less challenging for their summer reading. However, those looking for great literature had best pass this one up!

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