This tour has been fantastic and I am honored to have been included!
What causes picture-perfect suburban Oakwood residents, MacKenzie, Roxie, Sara, and Georgia to desert their therapist fly off to Florence? Answer: A romantic Italian movie that prompts Roxie to ask: “If Italy is so healing and therapeoutic what are we doing in Ohio?”
Even Sara, the most duty-bound of the group, finally joins the pact they dub “The Crazy Ladies of Oakwood,” and they all find themselves in Florence a week later. As they feel themselves embraced by the entire province of Tuscany, each woman falls and becomes entangled in experiences she could never have foretold. Not only do they find the fascinating Italian men that Georgia promised, but new sides to themselves and each other.
Against the glittering background of Florence, their dramas play out: MacKenzie returns to her student days as an art historian, discarding her identity as the controlling Oakwood charity patron and society hostess. Renewing her acquaintance with the David, she vows to let herself be sculpted rather than trying to sculpt others. MacKenzie finds not only a new talent, but a new man who appreciates it, just as her husband decides to re-enter her life. Roxie, who has always approached life as a circus, is drawn unwillingly into a passionate romance with a gorgeous Italian professor, Stefano. Her physical response to Stefano taps into lost memories, causing her to literally run from him. Roxie, normally a colorful Cubana, senses danger in visions and smells that resurface of a rotting summerhouse behind her Florida home. With his nurturing and passionate love, Stefano helps her to face the “broken piece” inside her.
Sara, a Xanax addict, unveils part of her that no one but her instructors knows. She is an extraordinarily talented concert violinist. Normally trapped in the demanding life of an ob-gyn (scripted for her by her Vietnamese immigrant parents), she is temporarily freed. She performs for others for the first time, and experiences unprecedented joy. She also falls in love unexpectedly with a man who is not only a famous Chinese actor, but has a mysterious side business. Her defense of him gives her the courage to loose the vice-like hold of her parents and step into her own script. Georgia, a grieving widow, processes her life without Ben and without her violin career that ended early because of arthritis. Looking for a new passion in life, she finds that satisfaction comes to her in “giving back” to those around her the lessons and knowledge she has learned through her successes and mistakes in La Dolce Vita. Just as her perspective is changing, she reunites with her first love, Arturo, and must make a decision about the direction of her future life.
Though ages have passed since the rebirth called the Renaissance, Florence still inspires change by breathing out its creative mix of energy, beauty, and courage. Where Michelangelo “set free” the David by sculpting a block of marble, each “crazy lady” finds her exterior “Oakwood” self burnished away by new experiences, revealing a new self. This burnishing is not a gentle process, but exuberant Italians help them through it with their all-embracing agape, or unconditional love. Though they do not know it, each of them hungers for agape’s healing power. They discover in it a balm that binds them together and puts them on the road to recovery, the road that is “The Only Way to Paradise.” Enjoy this first of four novels of self-discovery and romance.
How did this come about? I think I was wired to be a writer when I was born. Even though my formal career was in finance, writing was all I really wanted to do. There were a lot of things about my surroundings that I couldn't control during my growing up years, so I retreated to whatever alternate existence I was creating. The habit stuck, and now my family finds themselves living in my current reality during dinnertime as I overflow with enthusiasm about Wales or Italy.
I studied writing in an advanced workshop when I was at Stanford, but was discouraged because everyone but me wanted to be J.D. Salinger. I hadn't yet found my writing voice. But with my study abroad in Austria, I finally found the story I wanted to tell--the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its collapse into fascism. (I never for a moment thought that this might be a bit ambitious.) I eventually began this project while commuting to and from my job in Los Angeles as an International Banker. I had an outline. My studies abroad had given me the historical background. Using that, I created characters as prototypes of the ideas that existed in Austria in 1913. Then, while teaching economics and waiting for my first child to be born, I read all of Churchill's books on World War One, and everything I could get my hands on that would give me the zeitgeist (literally "time spirit") of the age.
By the time my three children were born, I had a draft, but I knew it wasn't going anywhere. It was too superficial. I didn't understand the European mind. I couldn't convey the degree of suffering they had endured, nor the trauma the Austrians experienced at the collapse of their empire.
I turned to writing a more modern story that was semi-autobiographical at that point. I was living in the Ozarks, full of conflicted feelings that I worked out over the course of five years in the novel that has now become Pieces of Paris. However, I knew also that that project had not yet lived up to its potential. Discouraged, I turned to writing what I read--light mysteries. For color I imparted to my heroines another passion of mine--genealogy. Finally, I felt significantly secure to submit something and I was published.
However, for fifteen years, I had been the victim of bi-polar disorder (a common ailment among writers), and after publishing three books, I became too ill to write. During that ten year struggle to survive, I learned enough about overcoming pain, and about life and love to be able to complete my Austrian project. That became The Last Waltz. After two more mysteries, I was able to complete Pieces of Paris.
I am, at this writing, 63 years old, and for the last eighteen months I have turned my eyes toward Italy. My new book "The Only Way to Paradise" is the result of intense immersion in the Florentine and Tuscan culture, and most of it was written there. Of course, the art and landscape are spectacular, but what makes my heart sing are the people. I think that they are born with a genetic tendency to agape (unconditional love). I have experienced so many kind and loving experiences at their hands, most of which are chronicled fictitiously in my book. I plan at least two more in the same setting--a mystery and a time travel.
I do genre-hop a lot, but I firmly believe that any endeavor that enables us to further understand ourselves, our world, and our loved ones is never wasted. I have chronicled much of what I have learned about PTSD from "Pieces" and "Paradise" on my new website http://PTSDweb.com.
As I started The Only Way to Paradise I was immediately captivated by the ability of this writer. I don't know what it is, but both of her books that I have been fortunate enough to read have had the same quality - excellent writing, complex characters and plot, all of which contribute to a delightful experience while reading the novels.
The Only Way to Paradise is a treasure...a book that you want to hand to your friends and family so that they can experience these characters as well.
I am a big "setting" person. For me, setting really sets the tone for how my entire read will go and boy does Vandagriff deliver on this one! Florence, Italy could not have been a better place to set this novel and it is interesting to see how each woman's past and present unfold to expose connections to this place. I think the author perfectly interwove all of the characters with the place where the novel takes place - a real strong point of the novel. You really feel like you are there walking the streets with the women in this novel.
Additionally, I really invested in each of the women in this story and their particular situations. It took me a bit to get the characters straight but I believe that is because I was reviewing an eBook and it is sometimes harder for me to read them. Don't be detracted from eBooks though, I think this may just be something I experience!
Excellent read, phenomenal author, and a great piece of women's fiction - definitely pick this up, it would make a great summer read!