Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2023

Return to Valetto (2023), by Dominic Smith

Long, long after the German occupation of Italy and the partisan resistance to the Nazis and the local fascists, its shadow remains.  And as with so much of what is unspeakable from World War II, silence reigns over painful and divisive events in Dominic Smith’s latest novel, set in the fictional town of Valetto.

Return to Valetto is a reminder that sunny Italy, with its universally loved cuisine, its beautiful churches and cathedrals, its picturesque villages, its Roman monuments and its must-see art galleries, was once a fascist state.  And just as there were fascists in Britain, the US, Australia and no doubt elsewhere amongst the allies who fought fascism, Hitler’s ally Mussolini had enthusiastic supporters throughout his country.  As elsewhere in Europe, in Italy there was partisan opposition, and though they exacted terrible revenge when they could, after the war some of those fascists melted into obscurity so that life could go on.

Though the exact year in which contemporary events in Smith’s novel take place is fuzzy, 1943 is the year that scarred some inhabitants of Valetto for life.  That year is still within living memory for some very old people and it persists in memory through their families.  (My neighbour Nello, born in the late 1920s, was 15 when he fought with the Italian partisans. At his funeral his proud family displayed a photo of him leading the victory march in Rome.)

Early on in the novel, the narrator Hugh mentions his daughter’s economics research:

‘Remind me what she is studying,’ said Rose.

‘Economics,’ I said.  ‘She’s currently studying how people make decisions when faced with ambiguity.’

‘How marvellous,’ said Violet.  ‘Whatever does it mean?

‘She studies the relationship between reward and risk in economic decision-making, especially as it varies by age and culture and gender.’

They all looked at me, nodding politely but without interest. (p.30)

What an odd snippet to include in the novel, I thought.  And so I noted ‘reward and risk’  and the page number, and my antenna went up again when I saw ‘reward and risk’ again on page 48, in the context of Aunt Iris spending her retirement using data to hunt down serial killers who think they’ve gotten away with something. 

So, yes, this novel is a romcom script in disguise.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but the plotting isn’t subtle. Any alert reader is going to figure out that the ‘secret’ in the blurb will be a someone right under Aunt Iris’s nose, and that a betrayal will originate in WW2 when Hugh’s grandfather was fighting with the partisans.  Hugh is a widower stuck in his grief after the death of his wife six years ago, and his daughter is chivvying him about moving on, so there’s no surprise when there is a kiss.  (He wasn’t expecting it, but the reader was. You can see the movie closeup in the mind’s eye.) The interloper trying to wrest Hugh’s inheritance from him just happens to be a chef, and a visiting chef is just what’s needed when old Ida’s 100th birthday celebrations swell the population of the dying village (10 people) into hundreds.  Perfect for a tableau denouement!

Yet… for the book groups who will love this novel, there are rewards and risks to discuss.   Hugh isn’t risking much when he considers The Kiss.  The aunts are risking their reputation as hospitable hosts when they give their mother a free hand with the guest list for her birthday party.  But there are three characters who risk a lot: someone who thinks he’s got away with something, who wants a last bitter hurrah; a chef who risks her professional reputation; and much more significantly, a character who risks her mental health when asked to revisit very painful memories.  Should she have been asked to do that by characters wanting vengeance for a betrayal withheld from their knowledge for decades?

BTW The book group menu is easy: antipasto and pizza; pinot grigio for fans of chardonnay and robust Italian reds for drinkers of Shiraz.  But there are lots of tempting descriptions of food for the more ambitious.  This is because there are two loyal retainers who facilitate a leisured lifestyle untroubled by domestic duties: Milo, apprenticed at eleven to be the tuttofare who does ‘everything’, and his long-suffering wife Donata who does the housekeeping and produces fabulous food whenever it’s required. Return to Valetto is a feast for the senses.

Theresa Smith reviewed Return to Valetto too. 

BTW the spelling of ‘brooch’ as ‘broach’ for an item of jewellery on p 26: there are fancy etymological explanations for the historic use of ‘broach’ and the American Mirriam-Webster dictionary chides those of us who wondered if this was an Americanisation of ‘brooch’ (i.e.  the jewellery a woman wears on her bosom):

Since the 13th century, both brooch and broach have been used to refer to the jewelry, so castigating those who write about wearing broaches is quite unfair.

So I will confine myself to pointing out that the spelling is unusual

Author: Dominic Smith
Title: Return to Valetto
Cover design: Sandy Cull
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2023
ISBN: 9781761067273, pbk., 358 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


  1. Thanks for the link Lisa!


  2. You’re welcome!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Also, love the book group menu.


      • *chuckle*
        Actually, it’s not my idea. There’s a bookshop near me that does author talks at a local bistro, and the menu always includes food that’s mentioned in the book. I remember being surprised (and amused) when Michelle de Kretser came to talk about The Life to Come and the shop owner had post-it notes all through the book noting allusions to food. Because, you know, that was not at all what I had noticed about the book!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Not surprisingly WP matched this up with The sweet hills of Florence, which is the book I immediately thought of when I read this review.

    BTW the only menu idea our book group needs is dessert … tiramisu anyone. I think most Bookgroups which do meals end up being more about the meal than the book. At least that’s what I’ve heard.


    • My source for an insider’s view of book groups is my optometrist. His is an all-male group, and whoever chooses the book has to do the catering too. They do more than just nibbles!


      • Hmm, maybe not representative! But great to hear about. There aren’t many all male groups. Jonathan Shaw is in one. I think that’s my main insight into all-male groups.

        We do nibbles beforehand, and dessert after, with the quantity, quality and style varying. The good thing is there is no competition. Some go fancy, some go simple, some go a lot, some go minimal, most make, some buy. No-one, as far as I can tell, feels they need do anything more than they feel able (or want) to do. The book and the being together are the thing.


        • As it should be…


          • PS The Sweet Hills of Florence was a terrific book.


  4. I lived in England between 1968 (8 years old) and 1974. I recall that I was taught to spell it broach. I just can’t get past that youthful teaching.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: