The sins of her father: Ciao Bella review by Kate Saunders
When Helena Frith Powell was 14, she and her beautiful, foolish young mother fled to Italy. Mother’s latest appalling husband had become intolerable. “She had made some pretty stupid decisions,” writes Frith Powell, “most of them involving marriages.” Fortunately, one of her earlier smarter decisions had been to marry Helena’s father, a wealthy Italian. Unfortunately, as soon as she left him she made enormous efforts to wipe him and his family out of her history. “My mother,” Frith Powell notes, “didn’t have an Italian attitude to family values.” In an emergency, though, these values turned out to be Helena’s salvation. She and her mother fled to Rimini, where the family was based, and Helena was suddenly face to face with the father she had not seen since infancy.
Ciao Bella, the story of Frith Powell’s search for her Italian roots, cuts between the past and the present. In the past, she is an insecure teenager, parked in her father’s apartment in Florence, with a view from her bedroom window of the Duomo. In the present she is a successful journalist, living in France with her British husband and three small children, and she has not spoken to her father since he flounced out of her wedding.
Years later, as an adult, Frith Powell returned to Italy intending to write a book about the style of Italian women. As soon as she crossed the border, however, her dormant Italian side sprang back into startling life, and she knew that the time had come to write about it. This book is a fascinating mixture of cultural study, memoir and travelogue — highly personal, often extremely funny and determinedly unsentimental.
The father she had suddenly got to know as a teenager was (among other things) a film director and writer, and sentimentality was something he abhorred. “Cara, you have to start again,” he tells her, after seeing her first attempt at fiction, “and try to choose something a little less like the shitting sentimental life you hope to lead.”
He is the kind of character that no decent novelist would dare invent. He wears a fedora, he keeps up a constant and sometimes embarrassing monologue of opinions and instructions. “Sex is like any other bodily function. You are hungry, you eat.” To emphasise a point, he grabs Helena’s cheek and shakes her head — something she detests. She begins to understand why her mother ran away from him. He comes across as a kind of Hannibal Lecter without the murderous streak — a pampered aesthete, a brilliant dilettante and a resounding cultural snob.
Frith Powell invites us to see the glaring difference between her mother’s rootless isolation and her father’s solid sense of family loyalty. Young Helena is taken aback to find photographs of herself as a baby cherished on the mantlepieces of a throng of relations she has never seen. Her aged grandmother bursts into a passionate storm of tears when she embraces the lost child, and that child is sucked straight back into the place her family has kept for her.
There is a strong element of the fairy tale here, because this long-lost family is so rich and glamorous that you can only marvel at the unworldliness of the author’s bolting mother. Young Helena, who has grown up in hand-me-downs, is suddenly showered with glorious Italian clothes.
She is taken to La Scala. She visits castles and villas. A wealthy friend of her father cheerfully tells her that he longs to murder his wife. “It is only rare self-control that stops me from strangling her daily.” She observes the ritualistic cooking and eating of priceless truffles. “After a truffle dinner,” declares someone, “fidelity becomes impossible.” And, like true compatriots of Boccaccio, everyone at the table swaps stories about adultery.
The adult Frith Powell cannot help wondering about the life she might have had if she had grown up with her father. “I would certainly have been spoiled and rich,” she says, “but I’m not sure it would have made me happy.”
Although her pictures from Italy are joyous, she does not gloss over the darker shades of her fractured history. Touchingly, her reconnection to her Italian roots gives her a sudden craving to be an Italian mother to her own children — adoring, cheek-pinching, pasta-cooking — just like the nonna who wept to see her again, and then urged her to eat. Ciao Bella is a sharp, honest and richly comic account of a woman belatedly coming to terms with her own lost self.
Available at the Books First price of £13.49 (including p&p) on 0870 165 8585
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019