Having read a plethora of books about the English, French, American, and German experience in WWII, it was a surprise to me to realize how little I knew about the Italian side of things. Enter The Light in the Ruins which is set alternatively at the end of the Italian fighting in 1943 and over a decate later in 1955 when the country is trying to rebuild.
The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian. Published July 2013 by Doubleday. 309 pages. I received an advanced ebook copy for the purposes of review.
Bottom Line: An enjoyable summer read that nicely blends elements of relationship based fiction, historical fiction, and murder mystery genres for a lot of cross appeal. Recommended to medium sized and above public libraries. Will appeal to fans of everything from Jodi Picoult to Iris Johansen
In 1955 Italy a serial killer is tracking down and murdering the members of the once noble Rosati family. As the investigation proceeds, the detective realizes it might have something to do with the final days of the German occupation of Italy and her own tortured past as a partisan Italian freedom fighter. Jumping between 1943 and post-war Italy, you learn the story of the Rosati and their villa on top of ancient ruins, Germans, Nazis, partisan rebels, and the impossible choices war forces upon us all.
What if you were 18 and there were no men your age around due to war? No parties? No socialization opportunities? Would you fall in love with a handsome German, even a Nazi soldier? What if you were 18 and you lost your entire family to the Nazis? Could you go back to your "normal" life or would you join us with the rebel factions fighting for freedom? What if that fight meant innocent people would die?
Different women, different choices. And at the heart of the wonderful novel is the choices we make when life is impossible. I found it to be an authentic and heartfelt novel.
The characters, especially that of Cristina Rosati and Serafina Bettini (the partisan/detective) were really well developed. (Insert obligatory note wherein I'm surprised at how well a male author writes female characters.) The supporting characters were also well flushed out. At times only hints of characters and stories were given, and the glimpse of a larger story added to the authenticity of the setting/characters--even if it somewhat frustrated me, but I'm a completionist.
The setting wasn't enough there for me. This book focused so much on character development that I felt the setting was somewhat lacking. There were wonderful descriptions of the villa in the 40s, the ruins, and the countryside, but not much of Italy in 1955. I had a lot of questions. How was the recovery going? Economics? Are there still bomb shattered buildings around or has it mostly been rebuilt? I got much less of a sense of Italy a decade past war and that is too bad because I would have been interested in it. There are a few hints about which tourists have the money to travel, some passing comments about what people were doing during the war and how that affects them now, but it was scarce compared to the war time descriptions. Probably the weakest part of the book.
And on the plot? The plot was page turning (to use a cliche). The back and forth between time frames, while often overused, worked to build suspense and gradually reveal the next necessary details. I'm more ambivalent about the two pages in between each chapter that were told in first person from the point of view of the serial killer. It didn't do much to reveal his identity or add to his character development once his identity was revealed. And it didn't add to the overall tension of the book. Those interludes were just there. Perhaps what the author was trying to do with them could have (or actually was) done by the rest of the text and that is why they felt superfluous.
In general, I enjoyed this book. Great choice for a summer read and it quite nicely bridges the line between historical fiction/women's literature and murder mystery. I didn't think of it as a murder mystery, but it would appeal to mystery fans.