2006 | Gibson Square
There was one subject that was never mentioned when Helena Frith Powell was growing up. Her eccentric Italian father. But one day a letter arrived saying that he wanted to meet her. She travelled to Italy with her mother and was mesmerised by him, as well as stunned by his advice on sex and relationships. He introduced her to Rome, Venice and Naples, and they stayed in touch irregularly until she lost contact with him when he stormed out of her wedding, leaving her mother to walk her up the aisle. Several years later, the mother of three children and the author of two successful books, Helena travels to Italy to write about the glamour of Italian women. But walking up the steps of her father’s old Florentine apartment powerful memories come flooding back, and she realises that there’s another story she needs to tell. She desperately wants to understand the peculiarly strong emotional bonds that tie them together despite his unreliable nature. In this moving and entertaining journey to the places she visited with her father, Helena combines descriptions of Italy, its food, fashion, culture and people with a search for the most mysterious man she’s ever met. Helena had no idea she was half-Italian until the age of fourteen, when she went to visit her real father and his family. Ciao Bella tells the story of a young girl getting to know an Italian family she had no idea existed.
Daily Telegraph Ciao Bella review
When Helena Frith Powell was 14, she travelled to Italy to be reunited with the father she hadn’t seen for almost a decade. His first words to her, as she ran along Rimini beach to meet him, were: “Ciao bella. I recognised you by your legs.” Several decades later, Frith Powell, now a journalist and the author of three successful surveys of the inimitable French feminine style, returned to Italy to write about the glamour of Italian women. As memories like this flooded back to her, she decided to write about her Italian roots as well.
The result is a frothy, humorous and highly personal romp around Italy, as she revisits the people and places she saw with her father on the “Grand Tour” they took when she was a teenager. Each stop on the tour – Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice, and her family’s hometown of Rimini – acts as a departure point for her to explore her own background, as well as to muse on the Italian character.
Colourful characters abound, from the father himself, Benedetto Benedetti, a sex- and opera-obsessed writer and critic, to the adoring nonna who attributes her longevity to the exercises she performs every day on the lawn of the family’s country house. Frith Powell describes the Benedettis with a light touch, with enough distance to make them believable – she admits that her aunt was an incorrigible liar – and enough affection to make them sympathetic.
A strong dose of humour also keeps the pages turning. The first time Frith Powell is reunited with her grandmother, she is crushed against her silver crucifix in a bear-hug – “this was one of my first, and more painful, encounters with Catholicism”, she writes. A chapter-long description of the almost Mafioso machinations required to prepare a dish of pasta with truffles is exceptionally funny.
Many of the wider observations Frith Powell makes about the Italians – using both her family and the other Italian characters she encounters, from the voluptuous hairdresser in Florence to the princess in a castle north of Rome – also ring true. Anyone who has spent any time in Italy will recognise the tendency to order food course by course, depending on one’s mood and degree of hunger, and understand Benedetto’s sincere warning that “being called ugly is the worst possible insult for an Italian”.
Frith Powell is less successful in her attempts to capture the essence of Italian women. She describes their dark colouring and Sophia Loren-style figures repeatedly, but observations about the sometimes stifling nature of Italian society are thrown in without comment. When Benedetto quotes a poem describing the Italian South as populated by women in shawls whispering about death, she writes “they could probably do more with their lives”. So why do they not?
Her descriptions of the cities she visits also verge on the banal. Santa Croce in Florence is “very fiddly”, while the Campanile in Venice is “one of the only Gothic buildings I have ever seen that I really like”. Clearly it is difficult to add much to the myriad Italian travelogues already written, but there must be more to say about these historic places than this.
Where Ciao Bella is really successful is in providing a snapshot of Benedetto himself. His own description of the Venice Campanile as “the largest penis in Christendom” is as outrageous as his instruction to his adolescent daughter that the best way to learn a language is to take a lover. He emerges larger than life from the pages, as do the rest of the Benedettis. Taken as a personal history rather than a generalised account of the Italian character, Ciao Bella is as rich and satisfying as a mid-morning cappuccino.
Our choice of the best recent books
The Sunday Times
10 December 2006
Our choice of the best recent books
1: The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader (Cape Pounds 25): formidably detailed biography that is both sympathetic and unflinching in its depiction of Amis’s behaviour
2: Having It So Good by Peter Hennessy (Allen Lane Pounds 30): the best narrative history to date of Britain during the 1950s
3: Ciao Bella: In Search of My Italian Father by Helena Frith Powell (Gibson Square Pounds 14.99): sharp, honest and richly comic account of the author’s search for her Italian roots
4: Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford edited by Peter Y Sussman (Weidenfeld Pounds 25): a funny, enthralling and gloriously honest collection
(C) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2006
Daily Mail Ciao Bella review
by Carla McKay
Ciao Bella is a travel book with a difference. Helena Frith Powell goes to Italy to write a book about the glamour of Italian women but instead ends up recalling her first meeting with her real father and retracing a Grand Tour of Italy he took her on when she was an impressionable fourteen years old. The book moves between past and present as Frith Powell searches, once more, for her elusive and contrary father, an Italian intellectual who spends as much time advising her on sex as he does quoting Dante at her in an effort to improve her Italian.
The past is brought alive partly by this eccentric and larger-than-life character but also because we are told it through the eyes of a young English girl whose idea of a good dinner is egg, beans and chips at a Little Chef and who has never seen a palm tree, been in love, let alone sailed on a yacht and sat in the Royal box at the Scala in Milan. Frith Powell’s father shows her, and the reader, a world of glamour, culture and beauty. But it is not without disadvantages; he is a compelling but at times cruel character.
Frith Powell’s wry observations about modern Italy and descriptions of her first visit to Italy; the colours, the noise, the food, are told with a light and amusing style. Her search for her Italian identity and sexual awakening are things we can all relate to. I particularly liked the Venice chapters where she stays with a Venetian artist and re-lives the “erotic tour” of Venice her father took her on more than twenty years ago. There is also a hilarious chapter where her family manage to secure a coveted truffle – then argue as how best to cook it. Ciao Bella is an ideal stocking filler, an amusing, well written and enlightening read. I defy anyone not to enjoy it.
Carla McKay is a former literary editor of the Daily Mail.
Ciao Bella book review by Christopher Hart
CIAO BELLA: In Search of My Italian Father
by Helena Frith Powell
Gibson Square £14.99
Frith Powell knew virtually nothing of her Italian father, the fruitily named Benedetto Benedetti, until he suddenly appeared in her life when she was 14. Speeding around Rimini in his vintage Mercedes, spouting Dante and urging her to eat bull’s testicles, he is very Italian: charming, irresponsible, a little superficial, and with a hopelessly antiquated view of the English as repressed. A delight.
You really must read…
Our choice of the best recent books
Having It So Good by Peter Hennessy (Allen Lane £30): the best narrative history to date of Britain during the 1950s
Ciao Bella: In Search of My Italian Father by Helena Frith Powell (Gibson Square £14.99): sharp, honest and richly comic account of the author’s search for her Italian roots
Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford edited by Peter Y Sussman (Weidenfeld £25): a funny, enthralling and gloriously honest collection
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.
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