7 Dreamy Novels Set in Italy 

April 6 2022
Share 7 Dreamy Novels Set in Italy 

We’re thrilled to welcome Atria Books editor Kaitlin Olson to Off the Shelf to share a few reading recommendations set in Italy. We hope you enjoy learning more about her editor’s picks.

During the long, ongoing pandemic winters in New York City, there have been few places I’ve dreamed of visiting more often than Italy. From the ancient ruins in Rome to the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and the market stalls in Florence and Sicily, Italy has kept its hold on me. But with no overseas travel in sight, I turned to the wealth of fiction set there to make me feel as if I could truly take a trip of my own. Italy looms large in writers’ imagination, and the wealth and breadth of stories set there provides something satisfying for every reader.

The Patron Saint of Second Chances
by Christine Simon

THE PATRON SAINT OF SECOND CHANCES is the funniest book I read and edited during the recent pandemic years. Although the novel takes place in Calabria—and the setting is important—depicting the accuracy of the village life is not really the aim in this brilliant and delightful farce. The novel follows Signor Speranza (“Mister Hope”), a vacuum repairman and self-appointed mayor of his small hometown. In a bid to boost tourism, he invents a rumor that a famous Italian film star is shooting his next movie in town. The only problem is, there is no such film. Soon the entire town becomes involved in its creation, believing the star will soon show up. But whether or not he ever does is almost an afterthought in this fun, brisk, lighthearted novel about the power of community.

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The Patron Saint of Second Chances
Christine Simon

The self-appointed mayor of a tiny Italian village is determined to save his hometown no matter the cost in this charming, hilarious, and heartwarming debut novel.

Vacuum repairman and self-appointed mayor of Prometto, Italy (population 212) Signor Speranza has a problem: unless he can come up with 70,000 euros to fix the town’s pipes, the water commission will shut off the water to the village and all its residents will be forced to disperse. So in a bid to boost tourism—and revenue—he spreads a harmless rumor that movie star Dante Rinaldi will be filming his next project nearby.

Unfortunately, the plan works a little too well, and soon everyone in town wants to be a part of the fictional film—the village butcher will throw in some money if Speranza can find roles for his fifteen enormous sons, Speranza’s wistfully adrift daughter reveals an unexpected interest in stage makeup, and his hapless assistant Smilzo volunteers a screenplay that’s not so secretly based on his undying love for the film’s leading lady. To his surprise—and considerable consternation, Speranza realizes that the only way to keep up the ruse is to make the movie for real.

As the entire town becomes involved (even the village priest invests!) Signor Speranza starts to think he might be able to pull this off. But what happens when Dante Rinaldi doesn’t show up? Or worse, what if he does?

A “hilariously funny and beautifully written” (Julia Claiborne Johnson, author of Better Luck Next Time) novel about the power of community, The Patron Saint of Second Chances is perfect for fans of Fredrik Backman and Maria Semple.

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Dark Tides
by Philippa Gregory

This is the second book in Philippa Gregory’s Tidelands series, but you don’t need to have read the first novel to enjoy this one. The magic and mystery of Venice comes alive here, with its narrow streets, its network of canals, and the famous Venetian lagoon. The novel introduces Livia, who makes the journey from Italy to England, where she sells ancient statues. But her unexpected arrival causes complications for the other characters—and her murky origins (both personal and professional) threaten to sink them all.

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Dark Tides
Philippa Gregory

#1 New York Times bestselling author of Tidelands—the “searing portrait of a woman that resonates across the ages” (People)—returns with an evocative historical novel tracking the rise of the Tidelands family in London, Venice, and New England.

Midsummer Eve 1670. Two unexpected visitors arrive at a shabby warehouse on the south side of the River Thames. The first is a wealthy nobleman seeking the lover he deserted twenty-one years earlier. Now James Avery has everything to offer: a fortune, a title, and the favor of the newly restored King Charles II. He believes that the warehouse’s poor owner Alinor has the one thing he cannot buy—his son and heir.

The second visitor is a beautiful widow from Venice in deepest mourning. She claims Alinor as her mother-in-law and tells her of the death of Rob—Alinor’s son—drowned in the dark tides of the Venice lagoon.

Meanwhile, Alinor’s brother Ned, in faraway New England, is making a life for himself between in the narrowing space between the jarring worlds of the English newcomers and the American Indians as they move towards inevitable war. Alinor writes to him that she knows—without doubt—that her son is alive and the widow is an imposter. But how can she prove it?

Set in the poverty and glamour of Restoration London, in the golden streets of Venice, and on the tensely contested frontier of early America, this is a novel of greed and desire: for love, for wealth, for a child, and for home.

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Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter

This novel’s premise of a young actress in the 1950s who arrives in a tiny village where tourists rarely venture, near Cinque Terre, spins out in interesting and unusual ways. The novel cuts between characters of different nationalities and backgrounds from the 1950s to present day, showing how the choices we make—to ourselves, to our loved ones, to those we are responsible for—have lasting repercussions. There is, of course, a great love story at the center (in Italy, romance, amore, is never far from mind), but the most affecting relationships here are those between parents and children.

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Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walter

Hailed by critics, loved by readers of literary and historical fiction, and featuring what is arguably one of the most iconic covers of recent years, Beautiful Ruins is the story of an almost-love affair that begins on a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline in 1962. Funny and romantic, the beauty and wisdom of Jess Walter’s writing in the last chapter alone will leave musical lines of prose engraved in your memory.

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The Birth of Venus
by Sarah Dunant

In the early 2000s, perhaps following THE DA VINCI CODE craze, a wave of historical titles set in Italy swept through the book world. Among my favorites was Sarah Dunant’s THE BIRTH OF VENUS, a vividly written, sexy, and slightly scandalous novel about love and art in Florence. I’ve read (and edited!) many historical novels set in Italy since then, but I always track my love of the genre back to this book. 

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The Birth of Venus
Sarah Dunant

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The Chef's Secret
by Crystal King

It’s impossible to talk about Italy without talking about food. And if Italian cuisine is your passion, this is the book for you. It follows Bartolomeo Scappi, private chef to cardinals and two popes in the 1500s, as he balances his duties at the Vatican and his forbidden love for one woman of noble birth. The sumptuous descriptions of food, some dishes we eat today and some now foreign to us, will make your mouth water. Impeccably researched, THE CHEF’S SECRET is a work of fiction, but the real-life Bartolomeo Scappi left behind a book of his own—L’Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi—one of the most important and comprehensive cookbooks of the Renaissance.

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The Chef's Secret
Crystal King

A captivating novel of Renaissance Italy detailing the mysterious life of Bartolomeo Scappi, the legendary chef to several popes and author of one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, and the nephew who sets out to discover his late uncle’s secrets—including the identity of the noblewoman Bartolomeo loved until he died.

When Bartolomeo Scappi dies in 1577, he leaves his vast estate—properties, money, and his position—to his nephew and apprentice Giovanni. He also gives Giovanni the keys to two strongboxes and strict instructions to burn their contents. Despite Scappi’s dire warning that the information concealed in those boxes could put Giovanni’s life and others at risk, Giovanni is compelled to learn his uncle’s secrets. He undertakes the arduous task of decoding Scappi’s journals and uncovers a history of deception, betrayal, and murder—all to protect an illicit love affair.

As Giovanni pieces together the details of Scappi’s past, he must contend with two rivals who have joined forces—his brother Cesare and Scappi’s former protégé, Domenico Romoli, who will do anything to get his hands on the late chef’s recipes.

With luscious prose that captures the full scale of the sumptuous feasts for which Scappi was known, The Chef’s Secret serves up power, intrigue, and passion, bringing Renaissance Italy to life in a delectable fashion.

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One Italian Summer
by Rebecca Serle

The magic of the famous hillside village of Positano on the Amalfi Coast is embodied here in Rebecca Serle’s latest novel. It hinges on one central, speculative question: What if you knew your mother as a young woman, on the trip that changed her life? Katey travels to Positano after her mother’s death, trying to come to terms with her grief, when she meets her mother at her own age—and, in the course of the novel, learns why her often remembered summer on the Amalfi Coast had such significance to her. There’s a reason why people return again and again to the Amalfi Coast, and Rebecca Serle captures it perfectly here.

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One Italian Summer
Rebecca Serle

The New York Times bestselling author of the “heartwarming, heartbreaking, and hard to put down” (Laurie Frankel, New York Times bestselling author) modern classic In Five Years returns with a moving and unforgettable exploration of the powerful bond between mother and daughter set on the breathtaking Amalfi Coast.

When Katy’s mother dies, she is left reeling. Carol wasn’t just Katy’s mom, but her best friend and first phone call. She had all the answers and now, when Katy needs her the most, she is gone. To make matters worse, their planned mother-daughter trip of a lifetime looms: two weeks in Positano, the magical town Carol spent the summer right before she met Katy’s father. Katy has been waiting years for Carol to take her, and now she is faced with embarking on the adventure alone.

But as soon as she steps foot on the Amalfi Coast, Katy begins to feel her mother’s spirit. Buoyed by the stunning waters, beautiful cliffsides, delightful residents, and, of course, delectable food, Katy feels herself coming back to life.

And then Carol appears—in the flesh, healthy, sun-tanned, and thirty years old. Katy doesn’t understand what is happening, or how—all she can focus on is that she has somehow, impossibly, gotten her mother back. Over the course of one Italian summer, Katy gets to know Carol, not as her mother, but as the young woman before her. She is not exactly who Katy imagined she might be, however, and soon Katy must reconcile the mother who knew everything with the young woman who does not yet have a clue.

Rebecca Serle’s next great love story is here, and this time it’s between a mother and a daughter. With her signature “heartbreaking, redemptive, and authentic” (Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author) prose, Serle has crafted a transcendent novel about how we move on after loss, and how the people we love never truly leave us.

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My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

I felt like I must have been the very last person to get around to reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels a couple years ago. Four volumes, totaling over 1,600 pages, and worth the time and effort it took to read them. A lot can be said about the way the novels deal with class, education, and the rapidly changing world. But at its core, this series is about the idiosyncrasies involved in one long and very complicated female friendship, and the ways external forces and opportunities shape it. The neighborhood where Lila and Lenù grow up in Naples feels like its own character—part of a world that no longer exists.

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My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante

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