When you curl up with an Andrea Lee story, there are three guarantees: You know you’ll get first-rate writing that won’t put you to sleep; you’re sure to learn a naughty phrase in Italian, Russian or French; and you’re definitely going to meet savvy, stylish, globe-trotting sisters who have great careers and even greater sex.
Take Miranda “Mira” Ward, the heroine of Lost Hearts in Italy: A Tale of Betrayal (Random House, $23.95), Lee’s provocative new novel. Mira, a fortyish Philadelphia-born magazine writer living in Turin, Italy, finds herself caught up in a hot mess: She’s married to Nick Reiver, a banker from a WASPy New England family, but she’s head over high heels in lust with Primo Zenin, a charismatic Italian billionaire.
With this novel, her first in more than 20 years, Lee once again expands the range of possibilities for Black women writers and for multifaceted African-American characters like Mira. She first caught our attention in 1984 with her fiction debut, Sarah Phillips (Northeastern University Press, $16.95), which spoke to a generation of free-spirited sisters much like Lee herself. “As I was growing up, there was just silence about women like me,” she says. “In the early sixties, I didn’t see many Black women in magazines. And there really weren’t many of us in books, either. I thought that by writing Sarah, I’d tell a story I hadn’t seen before.” Like many of her adventurous heroines, Lee grew up in Philadelphia’s tony suburbs and left the States in 1986 to live in Europe. The bicontinental storyteller was a preacher’s kid whose father, Dr. Charles Sumner Lee, led Philly’s influential First African Baptist Church. The church’s legacy and energy runs deep through the city and through Lee. “Living abroad and keeping a connection to my roots is fundamental,” says the author, who comes back to the United States at least four times a year to visit her college-student daughter in Cambridge and her cherished relatives in Philly. “If you don’t keep that connection, you become weightless, without substance,” she explains.
In Turin, where she moved 15 years ago after divorcing her first husband, Lee lives in a six hundred-year-old villa with second husband Ruggero Aprile di Cimia—a baron—and their 11-year-old son. But don’t get it twisted: Lee often finds herself in her house’s ancient basement, poking around with a stick to try to get the spotty old furnace to work. In life too, Lee says she often feels she’s poking around, but with a pen, trying, just like her characters, to find her place in the world. “There are great similarities between being a Black woman in America and an American woman in Italy,” she says. “As one, I feel foreign at home; as the other, I am foreign abroad.”
For more on Andrea Lee and her upcoming readings, visit randomhouse.com.
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