Many readers may be familiar with Chris Bohjalian’s novel Midwives, which was a popular “Oprah pick” back when she had the power to move millions of books off the shelves. Bohjalian’s powerful novel The Sandcastle Girls, about the Armenian Genocide, was reviewed in Thrive a year or so ago. So yes, Bohjalian is a favorite, and he holds that place deservingly. I was in the midst of The Light in the Ruins when news outlets were running commemorative stories to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and the book certainly enhanced my understanding of that time, since it is set during the war years, and in the post-war 1950s in Italy. The book gave me a glimpse into what families went through, from a different prospective. I’ve been to Normandy and I’ve read several Holocaust novels and nonfiction works, but this one take us to Italy, where plenty happened and life was changed forever. But Bohjalian is not a one-trick pony—he is a crafty mystery writer too, and this book provides the page-turning sensations of a who-done-it, crossing over into more than one genre, with everything coming together to create a terrific read.
The title and the location (Tuscany) do not prepare the reader for how the book begins, in 1955, where an unnamed character delivers a first-person narrative describing his mission to become a serial killer because he has his mind set on revenge against an Italian family, the Rosatis. The Rosatis are a noble family (led by a Marchese and Marchesa) who lived in a picturesque village in Tuscany during World War II, but are now mostly dead, the remaining few scattered in Rome and other parts of Italy after their beloved villa, Chimera, was destroyed in the war. The killer starts with Francesca, who is the widow of Marco, one of the sons of the family, who died in the war. Francesca lost her husband and two children and has been living in Rome, cultivating a “torrid” lifestyle befitting a woman who no longer has anything to lose. She is in touch only infrequently with Christina, the daughter of the family, who was only 18 when the war changed all their lives. The killer has targeted Francesca first, but makes no secret of the fact that she is only the first. His method of killing is telling: he tears out her heart one night and leaves it on her dresser. But as the story continues, it becomes clear that this women’s heart was gone a long time ago, along with that of many others.
The story shifts back and forth between 1943 and 1955. In 1943, we learn that the Rosati villa has an ancient Etruscan burial site, which draws the attention of the Germans, who were on a pillaging mission, stealing many pieces of art throughout the country. Vittore, the eldest son, works for a museum in Florence, where he has no choice but to cooperate with the Germans who have commandeered his place of work and history. Antonio, the patriarch and Marchese, feels he has no choice but to accommodate the Germans at his villa, which leads to a fascinating dichotomy in the story: we have the outsiders who think the family betrayed their fellow Italians (which will haunt them ever after), but the reader also gets an inside look at the impossible situation the Germans put the family in, up until they were prisoners in their own home, and members were killed by grenades on the property. The unraveling of the estate is hard to witness on the page, but the writing is so detailed and captures the time perfectly.
In 1955, we meet Serafina Bettini, who was also 18 in 1943, but is now working as a detective in Rome—unheard of at the time, so she faces her own set of challenges. Serafina, not her real name, means “the fiery one,” and was given to her because she was burned during the war as a rebel fighter. Her story connects with the Rosatis in more ways than her interviews with Christina and her mother, who she meets several times during the murder investigation, but one must read the book to unlock certain mysteries such as the particular connections she may have to the villa.
Back in 1943, the days of the olive trees producing bounty and endless hours spent swimming in the pool are limited as young Christina and the rest of the family witness planes flying overhead, and then the Germans make their first visit. It’s all fairly civilized from the beginning, but slowly works its way from idyllic to horrific. One young German lieutenant, who is a decent man caught up in the indecencies of the Nazis, is taken with Christina, and she with him, and her family is really in no position to forbid the romance. This helps fuel the rumors about the family and their Nazi-loving reputation, though none of this a simple matter at all. The backstory gives the reader a clear vision of how a family can fall so quickly and be misunderstood so vehemently and how they will eventually pay for it all in more ways than one. Sometimes history makes it difficult to sympathize with certain groups, such as the Italians, who were allies with the Germans for too long, but this novel describes how it can happen, and how it affected life forever, and not just for this family.
The Rosati family characters, along with Serifina and the German soldiers, give the reader a rare insight into a country and people who were very much in the trenches of World War II, whether they wanted to be or not. Bohjalian is a literary novelist, a historian, and a mystery writer all in one. And he excels at all—this is yet another one of his novels that proves that.