Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Inheritance by Natalie Danford








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Natalie Danford’s debut novel, Inheritance, tells the story of a father and his daughter, and explores what an inheritance is all about. Protagonist Olivia Bonocchio learns in New York after the death of her father, Luigi, that she has inherited the deed to property in Urbino, Italy. Through the deft use of alternating between the past and the present, Danford allows readers to gradually learn about Luigi’s past, to see how his secrets unravel, and to watch how Olivia comes to decisions about what moral action needs to happen next. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Saturday,” pp. 23-27:


The road to Urbino was steep and winding. At each curve, the bus stopped and sighed patiently before the driver sharply spun the wheel and swung the vehicle onto the next portion of asphalt. Olivia found the rocking-cradle motion comforting. With her forehead pressed against the window, she closed her eyes, but even though she was jet-lagged and travel-weary, she couldn’t have slept, not now that she was this close. An­ticipation fluttered in her stomach, and the key from her father’s night­stand prodded from her back pocket. She’d taken to carrying it everywhere. Warmed by her own body heat, it reminded her of the sun-bleached skeleton of a fragile bird.

The bus purred louder as the driver changed gears, and Olivia opened her eyes and gazed up. Above her perched on the hill and looking as in­evitable a part of the landscape as a plastic figurine of a bride and groom atop a wedding cake, sat the city where her father had been born. At least, he’d always called it a city, una città, but now she saw that it was smaller, more accurately a town. The buildings, all the reddish gray color of bisqued brown clay with no glaze, stood shoulder-to-shouldei so that the cluster appeared a single enormous dwelling intended to house thou­sands. Two turrets, which she recognized as the towers of the famous ducal palace, extended above the rest.

Sun glinted off windows here and there, giving Urbino the look of a mirage glimpsed through shimmering heat, but this was far from dry desert. The surrounding countryside consisted of lush green fields dotted with the occasional farmhouse. She recognized the scenery as the back­ground from Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the duke of Urbino, staring stone-faced at his wife in the other half of the diptych. A framed poster of the duke in his red mushroom hat had always hung on the wall in her father’s living room. When, in an art history class in college, the regular click and whir of the slide projector had thrown the image onto the screen, she’d smiled in the dark with both recognition and disorienta­tion, feeling like a third grader encountering her teacher in the grocery store.

The sweet, silky smell of a flower she couldn’t identify drifted lazily through the open windows of the bus. Around her, the other passengers murmured in Italian in low voices that blended with the engine’s sooth­ing white noise. Olivia was pleased to find that she understood their dis­cussions of whether they’d have time to hang the panni on the line before the sun set, or what they planned to eat at cena. She was surprised, how­ever~ that they kept talking and didn’t stare upward as she did. They didn’t seem to notice that something beautiful hovered over them.

Could you grow so accustomed to the awesome sight of a five-hundred-year-old city planted on an isolated hill that you stopped notic­ing it? Olivia smiled, but then she thought of her father, the last year, and what it had proved: You could get used to anything. The bus turned, fol­lowing the brick wall that cosseted the city, and the town dipped out of sight. It was right above the road, but so close that it became invisible. Then the bus pulled into a parking lot, and suddenly the palace reap­peared, towering directly overhead.

Olivia stumbled off the bus with the other passengers. The airline had lost her suitcase, so she had only a small carry-on bag, outfitted with a spare pair of underwear and her toothbrush and toothpaste. In front of her was a tall brick wall, and above that the arcaded balconies of the ducal palace, slung between the two turrets. Behind her and up a steep slope stood a grove of pine trees, to her left a grand arch with a white stone eagle balanced at the top, observing closely as passengers from the bus walked beneath it in groups of two and three. The road they’d arrived on stretched to the right and wrapped tenderly around the town before tumbling into the green countryside.

Olivia opened the side pocket of her bag and felt for the paper she’d found in her father’s nightstand after he died. Without pulling it out, she gently caressed the thick folds. Then she withdrew her hand and zipped shut the pocket.

She walked under the gate, below the watchful eyes of the stone eagle, and started up the cobblestoned hill that led to the town center. How could he have left a place so beautiful for the generic suburb of Shale-ford? she wondered. The sharply sloped street was wide enough for cars, but jutting off to each side, like capillaries stemming from a fatter vein, were tiny alleyways, some fretted with stairs, that burrowed deeper into the city. Looking down these side streets, she spotted wooden doors and low windows, most of them with their shutters closed. They looked like cozy miniature houses for mythical creatures—trolls or fairies. Tenta­tively, she touched the key in her back pocket. Might it open one of those cunning doors?

On one of the vicoli, a gray-haired woman leaned out a third-story window and lowered a basket on a rope. A stout man standing below packed the basket with a bunch of greens, two tomatoes, and a plastic bottle of mineral water. Tira su!” he shouted, indicating for her to pull it up. The whole scene felt staged for her, as if she were strolling through a Hollywood set for a movie about Italy, rather than having just made the journey—flight, bus, train, and then bus again—to Urbino.

Olivia, her breathing quickened from the climb, topped the crest of the hill and found herself in the piazza. Urbino’s main piazza was not one of the famous ones immortalized in art history slides; it lacked the seashell shape of Siena’s or the ornate statuary of Rome’s. But it had the charm and comfort of a public space that was alive. There were four cafés around its perimeter, and a large building with a plaque announcing the presence of government offices. To one side stood a pharmacy, its glowing red plus sign an out-of-place touch of modernity on the ancient stone building. Facing the pharmacy was a Benetton with headless mannequins and handwritten cards indicating the prices of the skirts and jeans and T-shirts in the window. Stretched over one of the two streets that led up­ward, out of the piazza, a banner crowed URBINO: 50 ANNI DI LIBERTA, 28/08/44—28/08/94

Instinctively, Olivia scanned the piazza for anyone resembling her fa­ther She herself took after her mother’s side of the family, with her high forehead and thin hair. There was a man in the corner, talking loudly with another, who had her father’s eyes, peering out of deep sockets. A relative? There was another man with the same eyes, and a third. Exiting the pharmacy was a mother, holding a child’s hand in hers, who was pursing her lips in thought, a common expression for Olivia’s father. Descending one of the hills was an older woman, smartly dressed in linen, whose gray hair came to a point between her eyebrows, just as Olivia’s father’s hair had. And all around her were foreheads marked with the regularly spaced wrinkles that always reminded Olivia of a comb through clay. All these people moved slowly but with certainty, as if their paths were laid out on the ground for them to follow. Olivia felt their eyes pass over her, and she imagined their surprise in finding out that she was not the outsider she appeared.

She did have relatives here—that much she knew. Olivia’s father had told her of a younger sister, although he’d never spoken the sister’s name. Olivia had sent an announcement of her father’s death to the address listed under the name Bonocchio in his address book and received shortly afterward an unsigned piece of paper with Condoglianzein handwriting that looked like someone spelling out words with sticks, along with a shiny prayer card.

When she was little, Olivia had run her finger over that address under B and wondered what her relatives might be like. She’d dreamed of a huge family gathered around a table on Sundays, a warm, earthy grand­mother dishing out pasta and urging her and a multitude of cousins to eat. Typical only-child fantasy, she chided herself as she got older. In her teens, she’d pictured a more orderly clan of thin characters out of a realist film. Now she wondered which of the two she’d find—the grand­mother who would press Olivia’s long-lost face to her cushiony bosom, or the cousins and aunts and uncles who would welcome her with concern. They were certain to be curious, but would they resent her father for leaving and, in turn, resent her? Or would she be a conquering hero?

There was another possibility, as well: Her relatives might not be there at all. She hadn’t told them she was coming. She’d thought of writing about her arrival, but she hadn’t known what to say—not the Italian, but the proper expression. Besides, she wanted time to gather her thoughts. She’d contact them after she’d been in the city a day or two, she’d figured.

Having arrived, she wondered now if perhaps she should have given no­tice. She might have been caught in a warm embrace, rather than standing here in the piazza, trying to pick out familiar features.

Olivia followed a sign with an arrow to her hotel. The woman behind the desk in the nondescript lobby took her passport without looking up and, in exchange, handed her a key attached to a strange Saturn-like key ring. It was a large copper-colored globe bigger than a golf ball, with a rubber strip hugging its middle.

In front of the door with the matching 38, Olivia struggled briefly with the key. It was old-fashioned—not so different from the one from her father’s nightstand that still rested in her back pocket. When she tried to open the door, the gap-toothed end of the key jammed sideways. With careful determination, Olivia straightened it and pulled it out. She took a deep breath, then rearranged the key and turned it. It caught neatly in the lock, and the door swung open.


The doors that swing open on the pages of Inheritance will bring pleasure to many readers. This is a fine debut novel, full of descriptive language and engaging characters. Danford’s description of meals will make you hungry.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2007 issue of Executive Times


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