Dear Blog Readers,
Tiffany Parks, my fellow Roman-American blogger Mamma buddy, has just written a marvelous new mystery for 8-12-year-olds about one of my favorite fountains in Rome, the Turtle Fountain in the Jewish Ghetto.
The protagonist is a 13-year-old American girl named Beatrice Archer who moves to Rome from Boston with her historian father and — lucky her – ends up in an apartment in Piazza Mattei, overlooking the Turtle Fountain. Here is Tiffany’s description of what Beatrice sees:
“The splashing of water caught her attention. In the middle of the piazza, a fountain sparkled in the sunlight. Beatrice stared at it, transfixed, drinking in every detail: a pool of turquoise water, massive marble seashells, four laughing boys sculpted in bronze riding miniature dolphins, a basin overflowing above their heads. It was the most perfect fountain she’d ever seen, but the best part were the four bronze turtles that perched on the very top, as if scrambling up to take a drink. They made her think of her pet turtles back in Boston–a bittersweet reminder of the life she’d left behind.”
Much to my pleasure, Tiffany stumbles on the cobblestones early on in the book and smashes her cell phone to pieces. The pieces get shoved in a drawer where they remain for the rest of the story and Beatrice relies on books and some solid investigative skills to hunt down information about the Turtle Fountain, the Piazza Mattei, the legend of the fountain and the history of the Mattei family.
I am not going to give away the story, but it is a fabulous tale with descriptions of real Roman works of art and locations. Beatrice goes from the Portico D’Ottavia, down Via Giulia and on a visit to Palazzo Farnese. Tiffany weaves into the mystery many real artworks and masterpieces that one can see in Rome — “The Loves of the Gods” fresco series in the Annibale Carracci Gallery at the Palazzo Farnese, “The Outcast” or “Derelicta” by Botticelli in the Rospigliosi Collection, the Cameo of Hercules in the Santarelli Collection in the Capitoline Museums, “The Bean Eater” by Annibale Carracci at the Colonna Gallery, the Bronze Etruscan hand mirror at the American Academy and the Putti Candelabra by Raphael at the Saint-Luc Academy, thus creating a potential artistic treasure hunt for young readers visiting to Rome.
Tiffany told me she got the idea for the book back in 2009 when she was at a book shop in Rome looking at all the memoirs of expats living in Italy. She realized the market was saturated and there might not be room for another. Then it dawned on her, no one has done a book in Italy from the point of view of an expat child. So Tiffany came up with 13-year-old Beatrice a name she says she loves in English, but even more so the way it is pronounced in Italian. As her Italian teacher explains to Beatrice early on in the book, in Italian the name is pronounced “Bay-ah-tree-chay.”
(I liked this little detail since I have a “tree” in the middle of my name in Italy. I have spent my past 25 years here being called “Tree-shah”)
Not only is Beatrice smart enough to solve a mystery while leaving her cell phone in a drawer at home, but she also is courageous. At one point she closes herself in a dumbwaiter in an historic roman Palazzo in her attempt to find a secret room buried below ground near an ancient Roman theater.
“She hadn’t stopped to think about these possibilities before recklessly hopping inside. But in the tiny black space, she couldn’t help visualizing what would happen if she got trapped. The slow, agonizing death from suffocation, her father’s panic when he returned home to find his only daughter missing, her contorted skeleton found decades later…
“Her descent slowed and, as if her worst nightmare were coming true, the wooden box came to a lethargic stop. She couldn’t catch her breath. Her head, by now nearly resting on her knee, was spinning. Blackness gave way to orange splotches. Her hands frantically pressed against the walls of the dumbwaiter. She wanted to scream but couldn’t find her voice.”
Tiffany has worked as a tour guide in Rome for years, a job through which she could take advantage of her passion and incredible knowledge of art in the Eternal City. She says it was as a tour guide that she first learned of the legend of the Turtle Fountain that became the basis for her story.
Tiffany told me she likes writing books for the 8-12 age group because “that age is a magical moment where children still have a certain innocence and open minds.”
Her next young adult book project involves one of her favorite artists, Caravaggio. The story takes place in Rome in 1599 and she has two protagonists, the niece of Caravaggio’s Patron, and a boy living as an orphan in Rome who becomes a model for the rebellious painter.
Tiffany introduced a new concept to me explaining that she is a “pantser” rather than a “plotter” – someone who writes books “by the seat of her pants” rather than planning and plotting the story. She said she wrote about 13 drafts of the book before she had her final version. The last revisions were done in Rome in the steaming summer heat in July 2015 when she was in the final month of her pregnancy. She sat down every day at a table with a piece of paper with the number of words she had to cut that day. Her mother-in-law brought her tubs of ice water to soak her swollen feet in as she trimmed off words. She finished on August 4th and her son Aurelio was born on August 7th. “He was my good luck charm,” she says.
“Midnight in the Piazza” was published by Harper Collins and came out on March 6th.