The Woman in the Castello by Kelsey James, Review: Gothic mystery

The Woman in the Castello is Kelsey James’ highly entertaining suspense-filled and romantic gothic mystery novel set in post-war Italy. Read my full review.

The Woman in the Castello Synopsis

Rome, 1965: Aspiring actress Silvia Whitford arrives at Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios from Los Angeles, ready for her big break and a taste of la dolce vita. Instead, she learns that the movie in which she was cast has been canceled. Desperate for money, Silvia has only one choice: seek out the Italian aunt she has never met.

Gabriella Conti lives in a crumbling castello on the edge of a volcanic lake. Silvia’s mother refuses to explain the rift that drove the sisters apart, but Silvia is fascinated by Gabriella, a once-famous actress who still radiates charisma. And the eerie castle inspires Silvia’s second chance when it becomes the location for a new horror movie, aptly named The Revenge of the Lake Witch—and she lands a starring role.

Silvia immerses herself in the part of an ingenue tormented by the ghost of her beautiful, seductive ancestor. But when Gabriella abruptly vanishes, the movie’s make-believe terrors seep into reality. No one else on set seems to share Silvia’s suspicions. Yet as she delves into Gabriella’s disappearance, she triggers a chain of events that illuminate dark secrets in the past—and a growing menace in the present…

“Like Jess Walters’s Beautiful Ruins, the glamour and heady indulgence of the era take center stage in this captivating, multilayered story that will keep you guessing to the end.” –Susan Wiggs, # 1 New York Times bestselling author

(John Scognamiglio Books, Kensington Publishing, July 2023)

Genre: Historical, Drama, Romance, Mystery, Thriller

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Book Review

Let us first address The Woman in the Castello‘s somewhat unrealistic comparisons with Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. Does Kelsey James’ novel achieve the same cinematic grandeur, nuanced characterisation and literary gravitas as that modern masterpiece? No, it does not. But nonetheless, it is a highly entertaining and compelling read.

Historical fiction’s depiction can often feel as though viewed through a thin veil or sepia-tinged. What I found striking about James’ The Woman in the Castello was how vivid and alive her post-war Italian settings and characters felt to this modern reader.

Leading lady Silvia almost bursts from the pages with unkempt emotion… The sheer intensity of her feelings, from self-doubt through to frustration with her mother and adoration for her daughter, makes her story compelling.

James then adds the colourful and enigmatic cast and crew you’d expect of a 1960s horror movie set, along with several metaphorical battles with time, and a handful of unthinkable choices and unknown dark forces to this locked-room mystery melting pot full of red-herrings. Oh, and how could I forget, there’s a good-guy romantic suspense plot worthy of a telenovela.

Does The Woman in the Castello fully interrogate some of the more serious issues touched on? No. But, are those issues explored to an extent that allows readers to emotionally connect with the characters and their stories? Yes. And sometimes, that is all I want from my leisure reading.

Kelsey James’ The Woman in the Castello could be described as an emotionally-charged juxtaposition of youthful desires and ambition with the heavy burdens of past decisions and regret. It is also a highly entertaining romantic gothic suspense novel. I look forward to reading more from this author.

My Rating: Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

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More The Woman in the Castello reviews

“With its sheen of ’60s Euro glamour, this is irresistible and satisfying. James is certainly one to watch. ” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A delicious gothic filled with atmosphere, twists, romance and dark secrets. Readers will devour it..” – Megan Chance, bestselling author of A Splendid Ruin

“You’ll get lost in the pages of this lush, entertaining story.” —Ellen Marie Wiseman, New York Times bestselling author of The Lost Girls of Willowbrook

About the Author, Kelsey James

Kelsey James is a historical fiction author and content marketer whose work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Insider, ABC News, and The Huffington Post, among other outlets. A graduate of Dartmouth College with a degree in Creative Writing and Classical Studies, she currently lives with her family outside New York City and can be found online at KelseyJamesAuthor.com.

* My receiving an uncorrected digital copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions.