Julia O'Faolain is a born writer, who has undoubtedly had to bear from the beginning the heavy burden of a celebrated literary figure, Sean O'Faolain, for a father. This may account for a certain bloodlessness in her prose, which often seems a bit too prim, too cautious. She is constantly shutting doors and pulling down blinds just when we'd most like her to open them and admit the light.
By this criticism, I don't mean to imply that I fault her in the least for not writing graphically sexual scenes (she doesn't), but simply that she always seems to be holding something back from the reader, as if afraid of appearing vulgar or merely pedestrian. I keep wanting her to take the sort of risks most great writers will, but then I realize I am being unfair. There is so much to recommend in her work that it seems churlish to ask for something else she may be unable, not merely unwilling, to supply.
In "The Irish Signorina," O'Faolain writes from the point of view of a young, middle-class Irish woman suddenly thrust into an intensely Italian milieu. She is following in the footsteps of her mother, who many years before had also been a guest at the Tuscan villa of the old Marchesa Niccolosa Caval-canti, near Florence. She inherits not only her mother's place at the dying Marchesa's side, but also a complicated past to which the Marchesa herself holds the secret. The unraveling of this mystery, with its nuances of entangled alliances, carnal yearnings and potential disaster, is the thread on which the author balances her tale. In some ways, it reads like a very good mystery, and at no time is it boring or obvious.