The epic love story of an Italian singer and a British dancer, set against the backdrop of war-torn England
Antonio and Olivia meet only for a brief moment, but the electricity between them is breathtaking. He is a struggling Italian singer; she is a captivating dance hostess at London’s seedy Paradise Ballroom.
Months later, as World War II dawns, they unexpectedly meet again. Olivia’s fortunes have changed, and she is now the wife of Antonio’s wealthy new patron. She fears Antonio will betray the secrets of her past, but little by little they are drawn together, outsiders in a glittering, rarefied world of tradition and class to which neither of them truly belongs. At last, with the threat of an unimaginable conflict looming across Europe, the attraction between them becomes impossible to resist—but when Italy declares war on England, the political and emotional impact threatens to separate them forever.
Heart-wrenching and compulsively readable, The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is a dazzling story of forbidden love and family loyalties set amid history’s most devastating war.
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Alison Love’s short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and in 2013 her story Sophie Stops the Clock was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize. Alison has worked in the theater, television, and public relations. The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is her American fiction debut.
Read an Excerpt
JUNE 11, 1940
They came for him at first light, as he had known they would. There were two of them. They walked briskly but not hurriedly along the pavement, glancing up from time to time to check the house numbers.
Antonio stood at the bedroom window. The June morning was mild, almost milky. It seemed to him that if he stayed perfectly silent, perfectly still, they would pass the house and leave him be. And yet he knew that they would not. At any moment—in thirty seconds, in twenty, in ten—they would knock at the door. The knock would be loud and hollow: a drumbeat, a summons. There would be no anger in it, no private hatred. The men were doing their job, that’s all.
In the street below, an errand boy was on his way to work, late and scowling. He kicked a fallen bottle from last night’s riots. Someone in the crowd had tried to throw a bicycle through the window of Fortuna’s, the Italian pharmacy, but it had bounced off the wall, the mudguard twisted.
I am calm, thought Antonio, I am prepared. I will not weep or tremble when they come for me. Even as he thought it, though, he watched the errand boy hurrying toward the lime trees of Soho Square, free to begin his ordinary day, and despair seized his throat. My life, he thought, my sweet promising life. What will become of it? The memories hurtled in a landslide through his mind, unstoppable: the dazzle of spotlights, the sway of the tango, a woman’s soft fingers upon his neck, his own voice soaring, soaring.
And then the policemen knocked at the door.
They were lowering the glitter ball in the paradise Ballroom when he arrived. The hall smelled of cigarettes and stale spilled beer. Below the dais the dance hostesses were killing time, tugging at their dress straps, poking at their hair. Their faces had the strained pallid look of nocturnal creatures who never see broad daylight.
“You’re the stand-in for Victor, are you?” A man in a checked cap stepped from the stage, where he had been adjusting a gilt music stand.
Antonio bowed. “Yes, I am Antonio Trombetta.”
“Eyetie, are you? Well, the girls will like that,” said the man, without enthusiasm. “At least you’re on time. Maurice hates it when his singers are late. You can leave your things backstage. Jeanie will show you the cloakroom, won’t you?”
“Not half,” said Jeanie, a bold-eyed girl with a crimped permanent wave. The other dance hostesses snickered amiably. Jeanie led Antonio through the baize door into a whitewashed corridor. He could hear the warble and squawk of a saxophone player, warming up.
“Well, you’re a nice surprise, I must say.” Jeanie pushed her way into a windowless room littered with coats and hats and furled umbrellas. “Usually when Victor’s ill we get an oily little man from Orpington with wandering hands.”
Antonio smiled. “Tell me, Jeanie, is Victor often sick?” he asked as he took off his overcoat. Underneath he was wearing an old dress suit, sponged and pressed to hide the shiny patches.
“Don’t get your hopes up. He and Maurice are like that.” Jeanie held out her index fingers side by side, then hooked them together with a suggestive wiggle. “Besides, Maurice is past it. Too much of what the Yanks call happy dust. The Paradise is the only place that’ll have him now.”
Turning to the mirror—a grubby mirror, smeared with pinkish powder—Antonio straightened his collar. His black hair was glossy with brilliantine. He touched it with his fingertips, gingerly, as if it belonged to someone else.
“Come and find me later,” said Jeanie, as she turned to leave. “I’ll give you a dance on the house. You’ll love the way I foxtrot.”
Maurice Goodyear was in his forties, with a jaded, handsome face. From time to time he sniffed, raising his knuckles to his nose. “Any of the songs you don’t know?” He was not unfriendly, but he had seen a dozen singers come and go, and he no longer had the will to learn their names.
“Well, I’ll cue you in and after that you’re on your own.”
Antonio nodded. He knew his place: in bands like this it was the leader, not the vocalist, who was the star. The dancers were gathering around the stage now, the male hosts as well as the girls, eyeing him with curiosity. The lights dimmed. Antonio felt a flicker of stage fright as he stepped toward the microphone. It vanished, though, the moment he began to sing.
“You and the night and the music . . .”
The dancers’ faces changed, a raised eyebrow here, a half- reluctant smile there. Jeanie, at the front of the hall, was grinning. Opening his throat, Antonio let his voice flood out. This is what I am for, he thought, this is what I was born to do.
Maurice Goodyear brought the band to a halt. “That will do, gentlemen. Now, once through ‘These Foolish Things,’ and they can let in the great unwashed.”
The hall began to fill the moment the doors were thrown open. Soon the air was shrouded in smoke. There was a hum of voices, the constant shuffling of feet. Antonio watched the professionals weave their way among the other dancers, their faces spattered with light from the glitter ball. Jeanie’s partner was a gangling young man whose neck sloped like a giraffe’s. Beside her a tall girl in silver lamé was dancing the tango, eyes fixed, one bare arm outstretched. There was something extraordinary about her face, though what it was Antonio couldn’t tell.
“The moon got in my eyes . . . ” He exaggerated his accent to make himself sound exotic: a cheap trick, but it meant that his listeners remembered him.
“You’re doing well, my friend,” murmured Maurice Goodyear, giving another sniff. “Go and wet your whistle. Back in ten minutes.”
There was a crate of beer at the side of the stage. Antonio wanted fresh air after the fug of the dance hall, and passing through the baize door he made his way to the back entrance. It gave onto a small yard, lit by a single lamp. The night smelled of rain on dusty pavements.
Antonio raised the beer bottle to his mouth. He was about to drink when he heard a whimper. A girl was stooping beside the brick wall, one hand pressed against her stomach, the other to her lips. It was the tango dancer in the silver dress.
“What’s wrong? Are you ill?”
The tango dancer did not answer, still holding her fingers to her mouth. Antonio touched her shoulder. Her skin felt clammy beneath the coarse metallic fabric of her dress. Crouching beside her, he handed her the bottle of beer. She lifted it and swallowed. Her face was very pale.
“Thank you,” she said, and she passed the bottle back to him with a lopsided smile. Antonio drank. The beer was tepid and gassy against his dry throat.
“Olivia?” It was Jeanie, peering into the yard. “The manager’s asking for you. They’re playing another tango, he wants to know why you’re not on the floor.”
The girl in silver straightened up. As she did so her body was gripped by a spasm of pain, and she gasped. Antonio took her hand, which was cold as a mermaid’s. From the dance hall there came the sway of a tango: “Dark Eyes,” the old Russian song of love and ruin.
“She shouldn’t be working,” said Antonio, “she’s not well.” Jeanie squinted as she made him out in the darkness. “Oh, she’ll be all right. It’s her own fault, after all. Oldest mistake in the book.”
She gave a shrug. “At least in a place like this the girls always know someone who can get you out of trouble.”
It took Antonio an instant to realize what she meant. He dropped Olivia’s hand as if it had scalded him.
“Dear God,” he said, before he could stop himself. Olivia’s chin reared fiercely upward in the lamplight. He could see her high cheekbones, her wide scarlet mouth.
“Yes, it’s true. I’ve had an abortion. What are you going to do? Call the police?”
Antonio stared. “Of course not—”
“Don’t look at me like that,” said Olivia. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Her eyes flashed, daring him to pity her. Once again Antonio thought how extraordinary her face was. It’s because she’s so plain, he thought; and then, No, she’s not plain, she’s beautiful. The knowledge catapulted through his body, a revelation.
Olivia whisked at her silver skirt, and without looking at Antonio, she swept away toward the dance hall.
“Good riddance,” said Jeanie cheerfully. “They’ll be playing a foxtrot next, I’ll give you that dance I promised.” She inched closer, tilting her face invitingly upward. He could smell her violet perfume. “I suppose I’ve missed my chance, though. I suppose you’ve already got a sweetheart?”
“As a matter of fact,” said Antonio, “I’m married. And my wife is expecting our first baby.”
“Oh, lord,” said Jeanie, “I’ve dropped a brick there, haven’t I?” Antonio did not stay to answer. He strode back inside, returning to his place on the stage. There was no sign of Olivia. For the rest of the night he looked for her in the crowd, trying to glimpse the pale line of her face, but it seemed that she had vanished.
It was drizzling when the Paradise Ballroom closed, the pavements greasy with rain. Antonio pulled his trilby over his fore- head and set off toward Soho. He liked to walk home, even when the weather was bad. It gave him a breathing space between the two worlds he inhabited, the shabby glamour of the dance halls and the noisy, familiar, claustrophobic atmosphere of Frith Street, where the Trombettas lived. Antonio’s father, Enrico, ran a kiosk in Leicester Square that sold sweets and cigarettes. During the day Antonio helped out there, and his other life as a singer seemed as improbable as a mirage.
In Soho one of the cafés, Ricci’s, was open still. Antonio could hear the rise and fall of voices, punctuated by the twang of a mandolin. He thought of Maurice Goodyear’s parchment face, of Jeanie’s violet scent, of the way he had fluffed a high note in “Night and Day.” He tried not to think about the tango dancer, and the terrible thing she had done to her own body.
When he reached the house he turned his key carefully in the lock. His wife, Danila, was a light sleeper. Slipping off his shoes, he went toward the kitchen for a glass of water, and saw to his surprise that the light was on. Filomena, his sister, was sitting at the table, wrapped in a dressing gown of fawn checked wool, her hair in a thick plait. She was frowning at a piece of paper in her hand. The moment she saw Antonio she swept the paper into her pocket.
“I thought you would be asleep,” said Antonio.
Filomena did not answer. “Let me make you some warm milk, Antonio,” she said, and crossing to the stove poked vigorously at the damped-down fire.
Antonio sank into a chair. He was fond of his sister, who was a kind, stolid girl. She worked as a laundress in Goodge Street, and there was always a pleasing aura of soap and starch about her.
“Was that a letter from Bruno?” Bruno was Filomena’s fidanzato, her fiancé; he was also Danila’s cousin. Like Antonio’s, the marriage had been fixed by their families when they were young, thirteen or fourteen. Bruno had been working in one of the grand Mayfair hotels, but when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia he had joined the army in a surge of patriotism. Now, two years later, he was still in Africa with the occupying forces and nobody knew when he would return.
Filomena touched the pocket where she had put the piece of paper. “Yes. It was a letter from Bruno.”
She took the enamel saucepan from the stove and poured the milk into a cup. Filomena was twenty, a year older than Danila. Bruno’s departure had left her in limbo, an unmarried daughter when she should have been a wife.
“He will be home soon, Filomena.” Antonio disagreed with Bruno’s politics, but there was no doubt he would make a good husband: he was devoted to Filomena. “Do not fret.”
Filomena put the cup of milk on the table, pushing aside a news- paper to make room. It was L’Italia Nostra, Antonio noticed, the weekly fascist paper. His younger brother, Valentino, must have brought it home. Valentino was a barman at the fascio, the Italian club where the Fascist Party had its headquarters; like Bruno, he was an ardent supporter of Mussolini. He had been desperate to go and fight in Abyssinia too, but his father had forbidden it. You’re only seventeen, it’s too young, Enrico had said, although the rest of the family knew that it was because Valentino was his favorite, and he did not want to lose him.
“Half of it’s been torn out,” said Antonio, turning over the paper. “There’s only the advertisements left.”
“I used it to light the stove. Why? Did you want to read it?” Filomena widened her eyes ironically at her brother, who smiled.
“Valentino will be furious.”
Filomena flicked her plait over her shoulder. “I will go back to bed now,” she said, stepping down into the scullery, where her mattress was laid out on the tiled floor. “Sleep well, Antonino.”
The Trombettas rented the lower floors of the house in Frith Street, four rooms with a lavatory in the backyard. Above them lived a countryman from Lazio, Mauro Bonetti, with his niece Renata. The Trombettas felt sorry for the Bonettis, especially Mauro. He was lame from childhood polio, and the only job he could man- age was washing dishes in the kitchens of the Savoy Hotel. He earns next to nothing, Enrico would say, stretching out his hands with an air of superiority. How can he ever make his way in the world?
The bedroom where Antonio slept overlooked Frith Street. Before the death of his mother, Mariana, it had belonged to his parents, and it was full of the huge elaborate Victorian furniture Mariana had insisted on buying from secondhand shops. As he stepped into the room Antonio barked his shins on the mahogany sideboard.
“Antonino? Is that you?”
“Of course it’s me.” He sat on the bed, sliding out of his braces. The light from the street lamp filtered hazily through the rose- patterned curtains. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Danila sat up, one arm cradling the bulge of her stomach. She was seven months pregnant. When they were first married she had been tiny and slender, her wrist bones as delicate as filigree. Now it was as if someone had gently smudged her beauty with a thumb, broadening not only her body but her face, turning her from a flower into a fruit.
“I wasn’t asleep. I was waiting for you.” There was a note of reproach in Danila’s voice. “Were you talking to Filomena?”
Antonio hesitated. His wife and his sister did not see eye to eye. Danila was a sweet-tempered girl, but she liked to have her status as a married woman acknowledged, and it irked Filomena, who had been running the household since her mother’s death.
“Yes. She made me some hot milk.”
“Why was she awake? She has to go to work in the morning.” “She was reading a letter from your cousin Bruno.” Antonio loosened the studs in his collar and slid them onto the bedside table.
“But there haven’t been any letters from Bruno. Or if there have, she hasn’t told me.”
“Maybe she was re-reading an old one. She misses him, Danila, out in Africa.”
Danila pulled a rueful face, and she put her arms about his neck, asking to be forgiven. The scent of her skin aroused Antonio. He slid his palm to her breast, which was taut and hot beneath her cotton nightdress. At once she stiffened. For the past few weeks she had been nervous about sex, afraid it would hurt the baby. He withdrew, and pulled his white shirt over his head.
“It is just that I am sleepy—”
“It’s all right, my darling. You need your rest.”
When he had undressed he slipped between the sheets beside her. She was snuffling against the pillow: an innocent sound, like a small pet animal. Antonio thought of their wedding day, and how Danila had gazed at him in the church, her huge eyes misty with rapture. That is love, he thought, reassurance flooding through him, that is true love. For an instant he remembered the girl from the Paradise Ballroom, with her fierce tragic face, but he pushed the thought out of his mind and fell asleep.
Reading Group Guide
The offical Reading Group Guide for The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom
1. Antonio and Olivia, as a singer and a dancer, are both able to captivate and hold the attention of an entire room but neither possesses the same confidence and authority in their daily lives. How is this contradiction reflected in their relationship?
2. Discuss their first brief but electric meeting and its repercussions throughout the novel.
3. Antonio and Olivia are both outsiders to the glamorous world of high society London; do you think this is what brings them together?
4. Did you respect Antonio for his sense of duty to his family, or did you feel that he put undeserving individuals before himself and his dreams?
5. The women in the novel, especially Olivia and Filomena, have to find ways of dealing with the social or family restrictions that limit their independence. How far do you think restrictions like these still apply to women in the 21st century?
6. Fascism is a theme and source of conflict throughout the book on both a global and familial scale. Discuss how, despite Antonio’s resistance, his family's connection to the fascist cause ultimately results in his downfall.
7. The novel looks at what life was life for Italian immigrants in Britain and the prejudices they encountered, particularly in wartime. How do you think their experiences compare with those of immigrant communities in America?
8. When the Arandora Star is torpedoed, did you initially believe that Antonio was dead, or did you hold on to hope that he survived?
9. When did you suspect that Olivia's daughter was Antonio's?
10. Discuss the role that lineage and heritage plays throughout the generations in the novel.
11. Olivia's death is sudden and the narrative provides little description. Did you think this scene was reality or a dream? Were you shocked to learn that she was really dead?
12. Discuss the relationship between Filomena, Nina, and Bernard in their unconventional family structure.
13. How did your opinion of Bernard change throughout the book, as a philanthropist, husband, and widowed father?
14. Filomena and Stan have a very different kind of relationship than Olivia and Antonio. What does the resolution of the novel say about passionate versus unhurried love?
15. Why do you think this time period in London is so enthralling and captivating to Americans?
16. If you were to write the epilogue, what would you envision happening to all of the characters?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"At last he heard the scuffle of feet, the creaking of hinges. The next moment the front door sprang open, and he came face-to-face with the girl from the Paradise Ballroom." Alison Love's U.S. debut is set in England during World War II. I was first drawn to this book because of the gorgeous cover, and then because I am studying WWII in History currently, and I wanted to get a better view of the subject. Sadly, I felt that the setting doesn't have an impact on the novel until the second half of the book. In fact, the book didn't pick up until the second half. The summary on the back of the book describes it as "[an] epic love story of an Italian singer and a British dancer..." but I don't think this describes the story at all, because this "love story" doesn't occur for long, and not until you are 50% through the book. Really this is more a story of characters and family. Olivia and Antonio meet for a brief minute at the Paradise Ballroom. It is not a love-at-first-sight story. Antonio actually despises Olivia in the beginning of the book, because she had an abortion. Well, there goes my respect for him. The abortion was actually very interesting to read about. Because it is such a hot topic in today's news, I think this book really opens your eyes to what it would be like if we didn't have abortion clinics in our world. Olivia becomes extremely ill after getting her operation, and remembers how unsafe it was. She was told she wouldn't be able to have children anymore because of it. "...The abortionist's flat with its reek of disinfectant, the tugging pain, the hot gouts of blood." After their encounter, Olivia and Antonio can't stop thinking about each other, for many reasons. When they meet again on a chance encounter, Antonio discovers Olivia has been engaged to a rich gentleman. Antonio is already married with a wife, Danila, who is expecting. Soon, their lives become tangled together and they become friends, and maybe something more (but not until page 187). The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is a character-driven story. Besides Antonio and Olivia, there is a large cast of characters you will get to know. Some are quite dull, while others are more intersting than the main characters. For example, Filomenta, Antonio's sister, was probably my favorite. Antonio and Olivia's relationship is not the only romance in this story, there is one surrounding Filomenta as well. Hers I actually found more intersting, and I wish the story was set around it instead. I want to take a moment to appreciate Love's writing, because it was really beautifully written. She is extremely talented at description, and I felt like I had transported into another world full of rich, elegant people at fancy parties. As a fashion illustraitor, I especially adored her descriptions of Olivia's silk gowns. In conclusion, I thought the plot was lacking, but I greatly enjoyed Alison Love's writing. This is a slow paced historical fiction novel, so if this is not a genre you really enjoy, then this book is not for you. Read more reviews on my blog, Book Wish. https://bookwishblog.wordpress.com/
It is the eve of World War II. While at the Paradise Ballroom, Olivia meets a handsome young Italian man named Antonio. Almost immediately he learns her secret, but keeps it to himself. Besides, he has secrets of his own - he is married and male members of Antonio's family have pledged their loyalty to Mussolini's Fascist Party. Their lives entwine which provides much conflict for an intriguing plot. This is a family saga with several romances weaved into the plot. I especially enjoyed the setting and era, which was shortly before World War II. Each character affects other characters, and they were all well drawn and believable. This was a memorable story with plenty of emotion throughout. A nice book to cozy up with and very recommended! Thank you to the author and publisher. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for visiting my blog, http://greathistoricals.blogspot.ca, where the greatest historical fiction is reviewed! For fascinating women of history bios and women's fiction please visit http://www.historyandwomen.com.
World War II stories run the gamut of tragic and bittersweet. The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom explores both emotions as the reader witnesses the years 1937 to 1947 for Olivia and Antonio. Alison Love presents a world in turmoil as Hitler and Mussolini march through Europe in a quest to control the world. In London, Olivia, a fabulous tango dances, struggles to survive in her job as a ballroom hostess, while Antonio battles poverty in providing for his family. Olivia meets and marries a wealthy writer and begins a privileged existence, and Antonio sings his way into a better life. Then the war escalates and England decides to round up those nasty Italians and transport them to Australia or Canada. Alison Love creates many remarkable characters, but Bernard Rodway falls a little short. I felt sorry for Bernard in his determination to assist the war refugees and his loss of Olivia’s love. This story showed me a side of WWII that I had not known in the relocation of foreigners during a war.
This was a very entertaining and interesting story that really held my interest. I love stories from this time period. While most of them are mostly talking about the war and what Germany was doing, this one hinted at Germany. But for the most part, it dealt with England and how they were dealing with the war. Whether there was going to be a war, where it would play out and what about all the refugees that had fled to their country. It was also about several love stories and about stories that really didn't have any love. It was well written with great characters and had me rooting for a certain couple throughout. It was wonderful and bitterly sad as well. I would recommend this book. Huge thanks to Broadway Books and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.