Somewhere on the border between Italy and Austria, in a deep gorge shielded from its neighbours’ eyes, lies the pretty little city-state of Vallerosa. Life in this sleepy country continues much as it has for decades: every evening the men gather at the two bars in the main square – the clientele of each dictated by long tradition; the women work hard out of sight; and Vallerosa’s chief glory remains the plantations where they grow their famous tea. And yet the President, Sergio Scorpioni, is troubled.
The fact that the world doesn’t know about Vallerosa has protected them from many wars and troubles over the centuries, but he’s conscious that a modern country ought to be doing more to attract tourists and to raise its profile on the international stage. With this in mind, when he receives a letter which apparently promises an imminent visit from a British royal, Sergio leaps at the chance to show off Vallerosa to their distinguished guest.
It isn’t until their visitor arrives that Sergio realises he has made a terrible mistake. While the letter did indeed make reference to the Duke of Edinburgh, its sender was actually Lizzie Holmsworth, a student who’s hoping to use her visit to Vallerosa to complete her Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. Sergio is mortified – and panicked, because it’s coming up to election time and he can’t afford to put a foot wrong. Fortunately his deputy, the calm and ever-reliable Angelo, has a plan. If Lizzie would consent to just pretend to be a member of the Royal family, then her grand state visit can go ahead as planned and no one need be any the wiser.
Lizzie’s plan was to come to Vallerosa as a force for good: to work in an orphanage or a hospital and do her bit for less fortunate nations. But she’s embarrassed to discover that her assumptions about Vallerosa are mistaken. This isn’t a country which needs a well-educated student from London to save it. As she is taken around by Sergio’s besotted ministers, she sees a country that’s old-fashioned but beautiful: where education is of the highest standard; where hospitals are clean and bright; and where the cultural highlight is the country’s Museum of Forgotten Things. Here the exhibits are things that visitors have left behind, or – most precious of all – that have been washed down on the river Florin: old bleach bottles and rubbish jettisoned by more ‘advanced’ countries, which are here regarded as treasures from unknown lands. The concept of waste or landfill is entirely unknown. And Lizzie begins to realises whether, in fact, Vallerosa might benefit from not rushing to catch up with its harder, more connected neighbours – whether it is the kind of country that is all the more rewarding for being a lost jewel.
Not everyone agrees with Lizzie, though. The Vallerosan tea has attracted the attention of the calculating American consultant Chuck Whylie, who seeks to be the one to drag this benighted nation into the modern world – imports, exports, contracts for nuclear protection. These things sound terrifying to Sergio, but if he is determined to make Vallerosa a modern nation, and to live up to the expectations of his father (who was President before him) what else can he do? And yet it doesn’t make Sergio happy. As Lizzie wanders around marvelling at Vallerosa, and enacting her own small changes on its people and traditions, Sergio sinks into gloom, increasingly convinced that his people will find him wanting and exhausted with trying to emulate his forebears. Little does he realise that the signs he takes for plotting among his ministers signal something else entirely.
This is just the kind of cosy, heartwarming comfort book to curl up with – along with a cup of tea, obviously – on a rainy afternoon. It’s gently satirical and utterly charming. Vallerosa’s untouched simplicity reminded me a little of Jan Morris’s Hav, while the sleepy cycle of siestas and evenings at the bar evoked period Italian films like Il Postino or Cinema Paradiso. It champions the slow life rather than the frenetic whirl of the modern world and it’s no accident that one of its main characters is the postman, Remi. Indeed, Remi’s defence of the postal service against the instant gratification of email sums up the essence of Vallerosa:
Post a letter now. Don’t affix an airmail stamp, just a regular overland stamp. It will probably arrive after you return home. But when it arrives, it will carry all the magic of the moment you wrote it. The scent in the air, perhaps even the moisture in your skin… A time capsule. And not only will it carry the essence of the moment. Something else will have been added to it. Other ingredients that cannot be included in an immediately delivered email. Nostalgia, interpretation, reflection and context. It is a different you who will receive the letter.
This isn’t intense, gritty fiction: it’s a warm blanket for the soul. It’s very thoroughly recommended to all those who enjoy a little spritz of charm now and then. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up longing that Vallerosa was a real place. Delightful.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review