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Below the wall, Tuscany lay spread out like a scene from a fantasy or a dream. Leaning on the wall with her elbows, she marveled at the view as she slowed her breathing. Morning mist still threaded through the valleys of olive orchards and grape vines, penetrated by tall rows of the Tuscan cypresses that she loved. Harvests of some sort of grain had left many of the fields spread in rare Tuscan gold, blanketing hillsides that led up to a salmon-colored villa with the requisite red-tile roof. Above the mist the sky was lavender and the sun was advancing upwards.

Could such beauty save a man? Could it save her? The chisel was digging so deeply now, could she survive the sculpting? Turning, she wasn’t at all surprised to see Roberto standing there, painting on a large canvas. This was his view, then. The very view that had saved him after Juliet had died. Looking back at the valley, she felt Kurt’s harsh words evaporate. They couldn’t co-exist with such beauty. MacKenzie knew now that it would save her as well.

G.G. Vandagriff, award winning author, with nearly a dozen books, including Pieces of Paris, recently published her latest novel, The Only Way to Paradise (right on the heels of Foggy with a Chance of Murder). Having loved Pieces, I was thrilled when she asked me to review this book. And I was not disappointed. Once again, Vandagriff creates characters with an artistry of words that draws the reader in.

When four friends, who meet in group therapy, decide to take a holiday in Italy, they must face their inner demons while navigating their way through complicated relationships with the men they encounter. But Italy embraces them with love and compassion, and they find answers they never expected.

Georgia Todd is a wealthy widow and once-upon-a-time celebrated violinist, who has lost purpose in her life. “I had a fantastic career. I lived La Dolce Vita for thirty years! Then I met Ben and things were even better. Now I’m all confused and unhappy because my career is gone and Ben is gone, and without my music, I’m nothing!”
Still hopeful, she encourages the trip, “But even for me, there are still possibilities out there. Dr. Kathy traps us so tightly into our anxious little spheres, we can’t see out.” With that, Georgia convinces her friends to go to Italy where “there are always men. Fascinating men.”

Sara, “a miserable ob-gyn, still much too enmeshed with her traditional Vietnamese immigrant parents,” hides her talent as a violinist. In Italy, her talent finds fresh expression even as she becomes intrigued with the mysterious Paul. Will she choose her violin, a betrayal to her parents who risked their lives for her, or will she continue miserable in her career? As she gets to know Paul better, she must make the most difficult decisions of her life. “Sara felt his promise begin to shift her expectations of life around like furniture inside her heart and her head.”

Roxie, the voluptuous, free-spirited Cuban, who has buried deep the memory of a great evil, finds that her attraction to the handsome Stephano is unlocking those memories. For her, love is menacing, but it also becomes her salvation. In Roxie, Vandagriff further explores her theme of PTSD and the effects it has on a life.

“Even though the day was bright and sunny, all at once darkness, dampness, and the smell of decay descended upon her. In a moment of déjà vu, she was paralyzed inside the deserted summerhouse behind her Florida home. Where the snakes were.”

And my favorite, MacKenzie, who had assumed the persona of an Oakwood housewife involved with her committees and charities. She finds that in returning to Italy, she is able to shed that false identity. In Italy, she becomes the person she was when she and Kurt, her husband, first met and fell in love.

Just when she feels she is beginning to understand herself, Kurt, who abandoned her six months before (leading her to therapy), shows up with their daughter. Kurt arrives defensive from some unknown offense, and soon angrily accuses her with unforgiveable words. MacKenzie begins questioning not only who she is, but what she wants with the rest of her life.

And then MacKenzie again encounters the generous Italian, Roberto. He brings out the artist in MacKenzie and tutors her in Photography.

“As she looked at the world through the lens, she was again distracted, this time by his hand on the back of her neck as it gently guided her head around. It had been so long since she had felt the gentle touch of a man’s hand.
“‘It’s my belief that everything in this world has a spirit of its own,’ he said.
“‘You speak a language I can understand,’ MacKenzie said, excited that he was explaining something she had always known set her apart from other people.”

In Italy, these broken women learn about love. They meet the concerned love of strangers, the unconditional love of their host Elisabetta and of the woman who drives Milano 25 (both real people), the passionate love of men enchanted with them, and the gentle, life-embracing love that is in the very air of Italy.

Finally, as an author, I kept this passage from the journal of Roxie:

I have been broken for some reason known only to God. Am I intended to write from that broken place inside? I must get up the courage to explore it. Perhaps that is the purpose in my life. The thought makes me cower, but isn’t all great writing about redemption? Perhaps in discovering what is broken, I can be redeemed through overcoming it.

I will write. . . I have to write from the bones of my body outward.

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