Book Review: The Olive Branch by Jo Thomas


It’s amazing what you can buy online these days:
Fashion accessories
A crumbling Italian farmhouse…

After a Prosecco-fuelled girls’ night in gets out of hand, Ruthie Collins awakes to discover that she has bid for her dream Italian home online – and won. Recently out of a relationship, a new start is just what Ruthie needs. Anything is better than sleeping on her mum’s settee.

But arriving in Southern Italy, Ruthie doesn’t know the first thing about running an olive farm. And with new neighbours, the tempestuous Marco Bellanouvo and his fiery family to contend with, all Ruthie wants is to go back home.

Life can change with the click of a mouse. But all good things – friendship, romance, and even the olive harvest – take time to grow. Can Ruthie finally put the past to rest and find her own piece of the Dolce Vita along the way?

I picked this up at an event organised by Foyles bookshop in Birmingham, where Jo Thomas was one of the speakers. I liked the sound of this book, and the fact that Thomas admits to wanting to write about foreign places, especially about the food, primarily because it allows her to go on holiday to do research!

I will admit that when I read this book, I had just finished a number of books where the main female leads were older (~60s) and getting another chance at love. Therefore it did take me a while to twig that here, Ruthie is about to hit 30, and with her 10 year marriage having just fallen apart.

There was one reference – well into the book – about Ruthie having piercings other than her ears, which whilst unsurprising for a woman of that age to have one, it seemed to be a little odd to include it half way through the book, and then not mention it again. (What does it say about Ruthie? Did Marco get to see it? Did he like it? Hate it? What?)

The chaos of Italian families is described wonderfully, with extensive siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, and a mother who wants Marco to marry a local girl and who fears that Ruthie could spoil everything. The big dinners, where the whole family sit down and pass food around sound great. Ruthie thinks she knows basic Italian, but is stymied when it turns out that the locals all speak a local dialect so she is flummoxed when she realises she understands little – and it is made worse when she finds out that the house was sold on ebay days before the grandfather died, and she is now the owner of a house the family had expected to inherit.

Being offered half of what she paid for it only makes her determined to make the best of things, and turn the house around into something workable in order to put it back on the market.

Having lived in the “Fixer upper” house in London, Ruthie has already learnt the skills she needs to do up the house (a handy way of not introducing a cast of thousands and Italian planning laws into the book) and with Marco’s help she does gets the house and olive orchard ready. Out of pride she engages Ryan from the local town to help out, only to find out just in time his methods are not traditional or even the best. He also proves to be unreliable, especially when he finds out that Ruthie is not going to be pressurised into doing everything his way. Finally he disappears off the scene, with the implication that the Italians have “made an offer he cant refuse”.

There is a feud going on between two sides of the family (the fathers – brothers – fell out due to Marco’s father’s gambling), Ruthie manages to bring the family back together with her painting skills.  There is the chance of romance between Ruthie and Marco – something his mother disapproves of – and for a long time it looks like it’s going nowhere, partly due to Ryan, and certainly not helped by the late and sudden arrival of Ruthie’s ex husband Ed.  Comedy comes from Daphne the Goat (named after the ex MIL), and Kirsty and Phil the chickens.

Some readers may call Ruthie stubborn, stupid or naive and perhaps she’s a little of all three (why not ask the electrician – anyone – how to light the fire so she could have hot water once in a while?).

This is a summer/Sunday afternoon read when you want to think of Italy, good food, Lemons and olives there for the taking along with your glass of wine. As such it’s not one to think too hard or deep about, just go with the flow and see where it takes you!


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