Books set in Italy boom, Grisham joins the rush

MILAN, Nov 20 (Reuters Life!) - The number of books by foreign authors set in Italy has exploded this decade, a survey has shown, with best-selling writer John Grisham among newcomers riding the literary wave.

In a sign that a centuries-old love affair between writers and Italy may be deepening, more and more novelists are answering a booming demand fed by tourism and Italian food, flair and hidden menace, writers said.

“People cannot get enough of Italy, whether it’s kind of armchair travellers” or visitors who produce a book, said Alice Leccese Powers, editor of anthologies of English-language writing on Italy and Tuscany.

Since 2000, 274 novels by foreign authors and set in Italy have been published, more than twice the number in the 1990s as a whole, according to a study of book reviews by Italy’s International Tourism Exchange, an industry group.

The number has rocketed from about 20 in the 1950s, with Venice the most popular setting. Thrillers and mystery novels also top love stories by more than two to one, said the survey.


Grisham, the U.S. writer best known for his legal thrillers, dropped his usual courtroom setting to return to Italy in his latest bestseller, “Playing For Pizza”.

The book deals with a washed-up professional quarterback who ends up playing for Parma in Italy’s American football league. The provincial athlete is stunned by the sumptuous food, the tiny cars and the fact that even the children can speak Italian.

“This is a book of travels, that’s what I prefer to call it, an initiation into food, art, opera,” he told La Repubblica newspaper early this month.

“I’m a tourist and I write like a tourist,” added Grisham, who set his 2005 thriller “The Broker” mostly in Parma’s neighbouring city of Bologna.

Italy has long served as a setting for writers ranging from Thomas Mann, Stendhal, Edith Wharton and Henry James to Robert Harris, Ernest Hemingway and Patricia Highsmith.

But Donna Leon, who sets her best-selling Commissario Brunetti mystery series in her home city of Venice, said in the last 20 years a yearning for Italian panache and lifestyle had grown.

She also said Italy’s beauty provided a ever-ready paradoxical backdrop for tales of murder.

“To set a particularly horrific crime in that setting is more interesting because you’re working against the presumption of the reader,” Leon said.

The boom in books set in Italy also arose from the ready-made U.S. market of millions of Americans of Italian origin eager to learn more about their ancestral home, said Powers, a Washington-based writer.

Of five anthologies on foreign countries she’s edited, “Italy has outsold all the others combined”, she said. (Reporting by Ian Simpson, editing by Paul Casciato)