The Train to Orvieto

This week’s other featured books, “Manhattan Seeds of the Big Apple,” by Gloria Walron Hukle, and “Lucy and the Lake Monster,” by Richard Rossi and Kelly Tabor, can be found by scrolling down below this post, or by clicking the author’s name on our Authors page.


THE BOOK: The Train to Orvieto.


THE AUTHOR: Rebecca J. Novelli.

THE EDITOR: This novel would not have been written without the love and support of my husband, Bill Broesamle. Jim Krusoe held the light as the story took shape and provided invaluable suggestions. Special thanks to Chuck Rosenberg, Jim Jones, Sharon Cumberland, Charlotte Herscher, Cecilia Strettoi, Alice Acheson, Deirdre Gainor, Bronwen Sennish, Brenda Anderson, Reynold Dakin, Jonathan Silverman, and Alisa Walker for their assistance, and, not least, to Jerry Gold, my fearless publisher.

THE PUBLISHER: Black Heron Press, Seattle, WA

Black Heron Press published its first title in 1984 and has published from two to six titles per year since. The press primarily publishes literary fiction, both adult and young adult (YA), as well as select memoirs, poetry, and nonfiction concerned with independent publishing.

SUMMARY: The beginning of the novel came immediately, as if someone were dictating it, and changed very little after six full drafts of the entire book. Those who require a corpse in the foyer to get things going won’t find one here:

At the top of a volcanic outcropping nearly a thousand feet high and hidden behind walls of yellowed stone, the town of Orvieto arises from a distant past. Tourists move through its narrow streets and quaint shops imagining the shouts of long-ago artisans and traders. Like pilgrims at a shrine, they believe that ancient verities can be found within our ruins and that by drawing close to our past, they will know truth. Their preposterous quest is doomed.

Inside the Duomo with the famous golden façade, Signorelli’s 15th Century fresco depicts the damned in hell. See, in the lower right corner where the face of Signorelli’s beautiful lover is contorted in suffering? This was his vengeance for her infidelity. Six centuries later her betrayal is remembered, but no one asks whether Signorelli was faithful to her, whether he deserved her loyalty. That the answer is uncertain isn’t easily accepted and may cause unwelcome controversy. For us it is enough to say, “She dishonored him,” and continue on our way. This is how we keep faith with truth.

THE BACK STORY: As a twenty-something traveling alone on an Italian train, I fell into conversation with an Italian soldier using my Spanish and his Italian. I thought myself quite worldly. The train stopped in Orvieto, and I was astonished when the soldier jumped up, swept me into his arms, gave me a French kiss, and exited laughing. Years later, the incident became the seed for this novel and features in an important scene early in the story. However, factual autobiographical material in the story ends here.

WHY THIS TITLE? Given the origin of the story, no other title was possible.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Are you interested in art? Italy? Love and marriage? Hopes and dreams and their consequences? The Train to Orvieto is a compelling family saga centered on the marriage of an aspiring American artist, Willa Carver, and Gabriel Marecheschi, an Italian winemaker, and their conflicting cultures. Willa’s life, the life Gabriel seemed to promise her, doesn’t turn out as she expects. A stranger, who isn’t all that he seems, enters their isolated and seemingly predictable lives. Does he offer Willa the possibility of escape from her suffocating role and the loss of her dreams? Readers readily identify with the characters’ conflicting aspirations and personal struggles that play out against a carefully drawn background of Italian life, history, and culture.


AUTHOR PROFILE: Throughout my life I’ve written and painted. The idea of becoming a novelist and literary critic arose when I was an English major in college. In addition to literature, I’ve always been interested in history, culture, and art, and I’m curious about nearly everything. These have been common threads in my work in teaching, writing educational materials, editing commercial and institutional publications, freelance writing, and communications. After I began writing this novel, I earned an MFA and began learning Italian. Both were helpful in completing this book. A serious amateur painter throughout my life, I painted the cover art for the novel and regularly show my work.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: I’m interested in the effects of our personal truths, in how we hang on to them despite all evidence to the contrary. Initially, I chose Orvieto, an ancient hill town in southwest Umbria, as the setting for the novel because the train incident with the soldier occurred there. However, as I worked on the novel, I found that the town’s isolation and fortified walls are a lot like our own “truths,” so Orvieto has metaphorical significance in the novel as well.


The Pavilion and its transformations typically marked out the seasons of the year. On December first, the volunteer fire department removed the hardwood platform to expose the basin below and then flooded it to create a frozen rink for ice-skating and the Holiday Ball. The reigning “Winter Princesses” – Willa had been one the previous year – arrived in a sleigh pulled by three horses and driven by the mayor dressed as Santa. The sleigh glided to the center of the ice rink and stopped next to a Christmas tree, which was felled for the occasion and remained there throughout the holiday season while several reindeer wintered in a nearby field. In its promotional literature, the Erhart Chamber of Commerce labeled the entire Winter Festival “a popular regional attraction.” More importantly and more often, The Pavilion was the site of the most significant passages in the lives of the citizens of Erhart. For many, including Willa, it was there that they first noticed the direction of the compass that would guide them toward their dreams.

As they passed in front of the refreshment table, Mr. Carver twirled Willa out under his hand. Over his shoulder Willa saw “Aunt” Leonie, her mother’s spinster cousin and an English teacher at Erhart High School, sitting on a folding chair and knitting a tiny sailor suit. Against Aunt Leonie’s stasis, Willa felt her own liquidity, as if she had joints and muscles unbounded by gravity, as if she were made of moving water. She knew that her pale gown of violet silk chiffon, the skirt layered like butterfly wings beneath a ruched bodice, contributed to the watery impression and emphasized her rosy skin, already freckled from the sun, though summer would not officially begin for two weeks. Her thick, auburn curls fell over her shoulders and flashed in the moonlight. Earlier that afternoon, she had gathered pink roses and dianthus from her mother’s garden and had woven them into a crown held in place with Grandmother Carver’s mother-of-pearl combs.

Willa and her father swept past Willa’s cousin Lawrence, who had just turned twelve and whose too-small suit revealed several inches of his ankles and wrists. Prodded by his mother’s elbow, he raised a cup of punch in their direction. Willa giggled.

“Daddy, look! Lawrence has one white sock and one black one.” Mr. Carver glanced at his nephew and then at his nephew’s mother.

“My sister looks like she’s missing more than socks,” Mr. Carver said.

“She expected nothing and gave up early,” Willa said dryly.

“Nonsense. She married a rich man. He’s a terrible bore, but she has everything she could want.”

“But she wanted to be a singer.” Willa twirled again.

“She had no voice,” Mr. Carver said. “It’s better this way.” They swirled past Aunt Leonie once more. Mr. Carver drew back and winked at his daughter.

“I suppose you’d say Aunt Leonie has lost something, too.”

Willa looked at her father. “Her sailor – the one grandpa wouldn’t let her marry…”

“That story isn’t true, at least not entirely. She’s had other chances,” Mr. Carver said.

“She gave them all up to knit for other people’s babies.”

Mr. Carver smiled at his daughter over his bow tie. “Perhaps Aunt Leonie likes what she’s doing. Have you ever thought of that?” Willa shook her head. “I take it, then, that you don’t intend to give up anything.”

Willa held her father’s gaze, smiling. “No. Nothing.”

LOCAL OUTLETS: Independent booksellers.

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon PRICE: About $18.00


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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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