REVIEW: The Woman in the Castello by Kelsey James
Set in 1960s Italy, this stylish, atmospheric debut spins a bewitching web of ruthless ambition, family secrets, and the consequences of forbidden love, as an ambitious American actress snags the starring role in a mysterious horror movie shooting on location in a crumbling medieval castle outside Rome…
Readers who enjoy the moody gothic allure of Kate Morton and Silvia Moreno-Garcia or the immersive settings of Lucinda Riley and Fiona Davis will be enthralled by Kelsey James’ spellbinding web of intriguing mystery, family secrets, forbidden love, and midcentury Italian flair.
Rome, 1965: Aspiring actress Silvia Whitford arrives at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios from Los Angeles, ready for her big break and a taste of la dolce vita. Instead, she learns that the movie in which she was cast has been canceled. Desperate for money, Silvia has only one choice: seek out the Italian aunt she has never met.
Gabriella Conti lives in a crumbling castello on the edge of a volcanic lake. Silvia’s mother refuses to explain the rift that drove the sisters apart, but Silvia is fascinated by Gabriella, a once-famous actress who still radiates charisma. And the eerie castle inspires Silvia’s second chance when it becomes the location for a new horror movie, aptly named The Revenge of the Lake Witch—and she lands a starring role.
Silvia immerses herself in the part of an ingenue tormented by the ghost of her beautiful, seductive ancestor. But when Gabriella abruptly vanishes, the movie’s make-believe terrors seep into reality. No one else on set seems to share Silvia’s suspicions. Yet as she delves into Gabriella’s disappearance, she triggers a chain of events that illuminate dark secrets in the past—and a growing menace in the present . . .
Dear Ms. James,
It’s been a while since I’ve read a Gothic mystery teeming with secrets and hidden motives. Brava that “The Woman in the Castello,” your debut novel, kept me reading all day long until I managed to finish it right before bedtime. I sort of sussed out some points, suspected others, but the final twist took me by surprise.
Silvie Whitford is desperate. Her movie career hasn’t taken off yet, her mother is dying, and Silvie has a toddler to take care of. No, she doesn’t want the dirtbag she thought she was in love with to even know that Lucy – Lulu – exists. This chance to return to Italy, where Silvie was born to her young Italian mother and GI father who had married after a whirlwind meeting, will hopefully get Silvie more notice and enough money for them to survive.
So when she learns that the film has been cancelled, Silvie unsuccessfully tries to land waitressing jobs before reluctantly turning to her last hope – her aunt with whom her mother has been estranged for Silvie’s entire life. Gabriella Conti is charismatic with enough oomph to Be Noticed. She also informs Silvie that during the war, she worked with Musselini’s film industry because she wanted more than a dull life on a farm. She wanted fame and if that came with being a fascisti, so be it. This is the first of many moments when Silvie has to face her own weaknesses and decide what she’s willing to put up with, overlook, and accept in order to snatch at her dreams.
A twist of fate lands Silvie the lead role in a new film, a horror movie that will be filmed at Gabriella’s crumbling castello which is located hours outside of Rome. When Gabriella disappears and no one else seems to be worried or willing to look into it, Silvie risks rocking the filming schedule to pursue clues. Who could want her Aunt out of the way – or dead? And are the “accidents” that seem to dog Silvie on set and in the Castello just that – or worse?
The book is filled with incidents which could be innocent or not. People have legitimate reasons to see Gabriella out of the way but these could also be mere coincidence or figments of Silvie’s growing unease and worry. The Castello is a moldy, falling down wreck which adds atmosphere to the film but which also creeps most people out. Everyone’s got a secret or two and Silvie’s long held habit of keeping people at arm’s length makes forging friendships hard. Plus her past disastrous relationship has her doubting that any men are worth the effort. Since Silvie’s is the only (first person) POV, readers are left trying to piece the puzzle together with her, jumping at shadows, and imagining all sorts of hidden motives behind what’s going on. That is, if anything is actually going on. Could it all just be wisps of smoke?
Clues are scattered around but there are enough red herrings and suspect though maybe innocent character motives to keep readers just this side of being sure they have things figured out. The backdrop of WWII Italy looms and flares up enough to see that in the mid 1960s, some things were still not forgiven and were certainly not forgotten.
Silvie is young and her upbringing leaves her with gaps in being able to deal with some of the situations in which she finds herself. She makes mistakes which I can understand but tends to get somewhat petulant when someone didn’t act as she was hoping they would. In one case it’s a pretty big bomb that got dropped and she seemed to think it shouldn’t be so hard to accept it. Yes, Silvie, I would call a timeout, too. There is a romance but it didn’t totally convince me. A HFN would have sat better with me. Silvie is a loving mother but poor Lulu is pretty much relegated to being a plot moppet. Silvie’s, Gabriella’s, and Silvie’s mother Elena’s relationship is where I focused. Too bad that the sister’s reunion and what they discuss is mainly offpage.
I had fun sliding down into a Gothic book after a long break and this one makes me mostly satisfied in how the misdirection was handled and the heaping helpings of doom and gloom spiced up the oppressive atmosphere. Just a few things would have made me happier but I will be keeping my eyes open for your next book. B-