Seattle novelist debuts with family saga ‘Train to Orvieto’

The Train to Orvieto by Rebecca J. Novelli

Californian-turned-Seattleite Rebecca J. Novelli has just had her first novel published by Mill Creek’s Black Heron Press.

“The Train to Orvieto” is a stylistic throwback in some ways – it has the conflict between the social expectations and the personal pursuit of happiness, and the attention to detail, that were characteristic of novels written a century ago by the likes of Henry James or Sinclair Lewis. And, as in the works of those authors, Novelli explores the thin veneer of manners over appetites.

The time frame for this novel is somewhat later -- the first section, titled “Gabriele,” begins in 1934, when Willa Carver, a careless young belle in Erhart, Ohio, convinces her hapless parents that she must go to Italy to pursue a painting career. This is based on little more than her own restlessness and the fact that she has an Italian art instructor who wishes to marry her.

Willa rejects that opportunity but accepts, at least for the moment, an arrangement her parents make for her to stay with a lady who lives in Florence.

And so begins a saga that encompasses two generations, two continents and two cultures.

Once she sets sail from New York, Willa ignores her chaperone’s counsel. And upon her arrival in Italy, she follows up on an impulse to accept an invitation from a headstrong young man she meets on a train.

Gabriele Marcheschi wishes to bring her to meet his parents. When she does so without going through the expected preliminaries, one cultural misstep leads to another, and before she knows it she has become la favola della città – the talk of the town.

Booted out of art school, she marries Gabriele within a few short months and soon finds herself pregnant and living in an agrarian community that is far enough away from Florence to make it seem as distant as the moon.

The succeeding years bring the hardships of wartime, but they bring unexpected opportunities, too.

The second section of this story is titled “Michel Losine.” This is another man who comes into Willa’s life. Losine has a tragic backstory that is tied to the war, and Novelli spends some time developing this before tying his story in with Willa’s. Losine affects rather than changes her circumstances, but the result is no less profound.

In the cascade of succeeding years, it becomes clear that the actions of one’s impetuous youth can etch enduring consequences not only into that life, but into the lives of succeeding generations also.

The final section moves forward a couple of decades and is devoted to the decision that Fina, Willa’s youngest daughter, is on the cusp of making – to stay in Orvieto and get married, or to go away to university.

In some cases, history repeats itself, and in other ways, the mistakes of the past inform different choices in the future. Novatelli shows that sometimes an element of serendipity can play a significant role, too.

“The Train to Orvieto” is an interesting debut.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com