The Whirling Girl opens like a modern fairy tale, when Clare Livingston inherits an old Tuscan farmhouse from her uncle, an Etruscan scholar of international repute. This is “the stuff that dreams are made on,” and as she drives along the old roads winding round Cortona in her rental jeep, we shift into the enchanted Italian landscape of “castled towns.” Clare is an accomplished traveler herself, an Amazon explorer and botanical illustrator, and she has come to Tuscany to carry out a project: to make a series of botanical drawings of Tuscan plants used in witchcraft, inspired by the works of Charles Leland. The house she has inherited is the archetypal Tuscan farmhouse, ancient and weathered, built of lichen-covered stones which seem to grow out of the hill itself. Its dim mirrors reflect a seductive but unreal landscape and an unreal self as she whirls before her mirror in a private ritual echoing DH Lawrence’s description of Etruscan dances. As the story progresses, turning into a quirky comedy of manners, she will keep whirling, pursued by two men, a shaggy American archaeologist lacking in psychological subtlety and an Italian aristocrat only too subtle.
She will learn that Italy is dangerous, and indeed that Italians are “mysterious and terrible,” with a country behind them “that’s upset people from the beginning of the world” to quote Forster.
Italy is the land of sensual transformation, where nymphs and satyrs both ancient and contemporary may be lurking the bushes, where the friendliest handyman and most trustworthy maid may mask their real intentions behind their smiles, where the earth yields up treasures buried centuries ago to those who look for them, and nothing is ever what it seems. Although her name is Clare, she isn’t clear or transparent, her life holds a secret love, a secret shame – and a lie, she is not who she really claims to be. Despite the atmosphere of this novel spun with sensual charm, evoking all the pleasures of Tuscany: its art and architecture, landscapes, festivals, luscious food,rustic settings, and glamorous expats, this is a story about redeeming oneself by unburying the past, and then coming home to a new starting place.
Barbara Lambert's impressionistic prose is airy and elegant, lush and sensual,offering an authentic taste of a Tuscan summer. A great book for a summer read... preferably, in Tuscany!