I am obsessed with Italy. I am obsessed with France. I am obsessed with anything Mediterranean. My screensavers are of Greek islands, Italian cypress trees, French vineyards. I gobble down books set in the area and visit as often as I can. As a young girl, I dreamed of a honeymoon on the isle of Crete—simply because I’d read a story set there as a child. And the Mediterranean is in my blood. My family is Italian and live in the Piedmont region, and I find any excuse to visit.
So it’s not a surprise that my latest novel is set off the coast of Italy. It’s the story of a destination wedding gone badly awry, a tale of murder, and obsession, and twisted love, set on a fictional island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Isola. Once the home to ancient witches and power-mad generals, it is now in the possession of the fabulously wealthy Compton family. Legend has it it’s the island Scylla was banished to, and there is a cult of Venus adorers who made their historical home there, too.
You can’t have a gothic story without an obsession. And what is falling in love but obsession personified? No, deified? To do so against the backdrop of the Mediterranean can either go well… or terribly wrong. Beautiful or twisted, elegant or terrifying, these are some of my favorite stories of obsession set against the Mediterranean backdrop.
Circe, by Madeline Miller
Speaking of Scylla… Circe is one of the most perfect examples of obsession gone awry in the modern canon. It is a remarkable story of grace and forgiveness, of a woman struggling with her power and with her faults, of loneliness and honor, while also making an underdeveloped mythological creature a true hero.
Tangerine, by Christine Mangan
1950s Tangiers comes alive in this glorious novel of obsession that begs the question: How well do you really know the people in your life? Lucy and Alice are college chums who find themselves together again when Lucy comes to Tangiers to stay with Alice and her new husband, John. Are Alice’s memories faulty, or is she the idée fixe of a disturbed young woman?
My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne Du Maurier
While much of the book takes place in England, Florence takes center stage and steals the show every time. I wanted to sit in the courtyard and drink wine while creating great art and writing letters home about falling in love in Italy. In true Highsmith fashion, the romance is tied up with the mystery. Is Rachel is an innocent woman desperate for love, or the ultimate black widow?
Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
Probably my favorite Italian escapade, Ripley’s first adventure–for Ripley is always on some sort of adventure–brings him to the small, imagined village of Mongibello where he plumbs the depth of love, murder, and impersonation. Thomas Ripley’s obsession with Dickie Greenleaf looks to be his downfall, until he manages to twist things to his benefit. A tightrope, unputdownable story, its very essence is so Italian, la dolce vita will bite you if you’re not careful.
Lie With Me, Sabine Durrant
Paul Morris is, in a word, a mooch. You know that guy no one really like who gloms on and suddenly becomes a part of thing? That’s Paul, the ultimate grifter, a one-hit-wonder author who falls in love with a woman and ends up on holiday with her family on the Greek Island of Pyros. I could taste the dust from the road, the sweetness of the fruit, the cooling delight of the pool under the baking sun. And the story itself is absolutely killer, with a Ripley-esque feel.
The Monster of Florence, by Doug Preston and Mario Spezi
I adore Florence, but I refuse to stay anywhere in the countryside outside of the city because of the famed serial killer known as Il Mostro, the Monster of Florence. Preston’s book is a fascinating deep dive into the discovery of who Il Mostro really was. Plus, their theories got the authors in such trouble with the Italian government that Preston will be arrested on sight if he dares to tread back across the border. A wonderful, creepy work of non-fiction.
The Odyssey, by Homer
Odysseus is synonymous with obsession, isn’t he? I must say I am especially grateful to him for his explorations, because without the story of his boats passing through the straits between the Scylla and Charybdis, I wouldn’t have found my ending. The perfect companion piece to Miller’s CIRCE.
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud
Names have power. Algiers comes to life in this response to Camus’s The Stranger, written from the point of view of the brother of “The Arab” who was murdered in Camus’s novel. This short novel is a study in obsession. I always love a tale that examines the other side of the story. This has a Wide Sargasso Sea feeling to it, but is as sharp, cutting, tragic, and important as the book it complements.
Call Me By Your Name, by Andre Aciman
Obsession, yes, but not in a bad way. Reading this is like taking a dip in a refreshing Italian pool on a scorching hot day, knowing there is a plate of fruits and cheeses and salami and apricot juice waiting to cool you down and slake your appetite. Salty olives drowning in oil and the sharpest, saltiest Parmesan. The book is achingly gorgeous. It doesn’t need a ton of flash or name-dropping of cities and culture; it’s Italian life personified. And Oliver and Eliot are the best kind of star-crossed lovers, those whose desire is supplanted by what’s expected but find their way to each other regardless.