The opening chapter of The Missing Italian Girl plays out like a scene from a Merchant Ivory film; the year is 1897, the city is Paris and three shrouded figures dodge the ghoulish cast of gas lamps near the Gare de l’Est as they bring a special (and posthumous) delivery to one of the city’s dumping waters, the Basin de La Villette. In the city of lights, on a warm summer night at the turn of the century, the trio is taking a great risk. Guided by the young and confident Russian revolutionary Pyotr Ivanovich, two Italian teenage sisters — Angela and Maura Laurenzano — find themselves swept up in a world of anarchy and murder by the basin that night, as the plot is elegantly set in motion.
Local author Barbara Corrado Pope rewrote that chapter of Italian Girl three times before finding her new muse, the tough-as-nails Maura Laurenzano. “That’s how Maura became such a big character,” Pope says. “Because I said, ‘I like this, I like being 17 and nasty. I like having those big emotions.’” Italian Girl is the third installment of Pope’s murder mystery series that was born with the novice judge and investigator Bernard Martin and his love interest, the indefatigable schoolteacher Clarie, in Cézanne’s Quarry in Aix-en-Provence and continued to unfold in the The Blood of Lorraine in Nancy. Published Feb. 13, Oprah’s Book Club soon named Italian Girl a “Compulsively Readable Mystery” for the “crazy-smart reader.”
Now, a reader mustn’t be a scholar to enjoy Pope’s novels, but paying close attention to the details is required to suck the marrow from a Parisian mystery that tugs at several historical threads at once: the labor movement (“the unionists, they were the bulwark of the labor movement”), immigrant populations (“It’s always been a city of immigration”), class disparities (the “desperate conditions” of Paris’ working poor) and the women’s movement (“American and English feminism was very confrontational … That wasn’t present in France”). And like the city’s Arc de Triumphe, where several streets meet to form a 12-pointed étoile, so is Italian Girl’s Lycée Lamartine, a place where these historical themes collide.
“I wanted to know where [Clarie] taught so I did research on the schools. It was important for me to pick a school that was not the poshest but was very good, and had a mixed population.” On a visit to Paris, Pope found that school in Lycée Lamartine, in the heart of the Montmartre quartier — the stomping ground of artists like Toulouse Lautrec at the end of the 19th century. “I stayed in an apartment that was two blocks away from the school,” she says. Pope says she was able to treat Montmartre like the village it once was because she “kept walking around the neighborhood.” The school also ties the two female protagonists together: Clarie, a schoolteacher, and Maura, whose mother Francesca is the school’s charwoman.
“A lot of the plot is about how Clarie sees herself in Maura,” Pope says. Clarie, who is still feeling the loss of her child in The Blood of Lorraine, has become a professional, “dignified” woman with the domestic responsibilities of a husband and a toddler. Maura’s brashness, independence and strength stir the fire in Clarie’s belly that had almost gone out. That fire turns into a blaze as Clarie and Co. attempt to find out what happened to the missing Italian girl.
Barbara Pope will do a reading of The Missing Italian Girl at 2 pm Saturday, March 2, at the UO Knight Library Browsing Room.