Tuscany, with all of its lush beauty and its rich artistic history, provides a perfect background for Chris Bohjalian’s The Light in the Ruins, which combines historical fiction with a great, if somewhat gritty, murder mystery. As a fan of both, and a great lover of Italy, I was in seventh heaven throughout the novel.
I have read a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about World War II, but I was only marginally aware of the role Italy played during this intense time in history. I, of course, knew that Italy was part of the Axis powers and that Mussolini was a terrible leader, but beyond that, I was pretty clueless. Most books focus on England or France or Germany or Russia.
One of the things I liked best about this novel was it really made me think about how war impacts the people who aren’t directly fighting in the battles. I don’t really know the answer to this question, but did the people of Italy (not the government people, but the Italians who raised cattle in Tuscany or grew grapes in Abruzzo or made cheese in Emilio-Romagna or pressed olives into olive oil in Umbria) believe in the cause, or did they think the German Nazis were simply bullies they couldn’t ignore for fear of their lives?
I think that’s how the Rosatis felt, though I imagine that’s kind of a matter of the reader’s opinion. I believed they did what they felt they needed to do to stay alive.
I am not generally a fan of stories that go back and forth in time, but I found the method worked very well in this story. Perhaps its success was due to the fact that the two storylines weren’t that far apart in time. I thought it was interesting to see the world right after the dreadful war had ended. People were just beginning to get their lives back together, but hadn’t forgotten what it was like. Even people who hadn’t been so directly and horrifically impacted as Seraphina, the detective who finally figures out who is committing the brutal murders of the Rosati family, one-by-one.
And what a wonderful sit-at-the-edge-of-my-seat, must-read-one-more-chapter-before-I-turn-out-the-light mystery, one that left me hearing noises in the night and being convinced my heart was soon to be cut out!
I was interested in the tie-in Bohjalian made to World War II’s impact on art. The topic reminded me of Monuments Men, a book we also read for Ethereal Reader. Vittore Rosati, the architect, was committed to trying to save some of the world’s treasures from the Nazi’s greed.
One of the few things I didn’t particularly like about the book was that we learn much about the ending (though not the murderer or the reason for the murders) early in the story. I’m not giving much away if I tell you that early on, we learn who lives and who dies in the book. I’m not sure I liked knowing that much from the get-go.
I mostly liked the characters, though there were disturbing facts about all of them. In particular, Seraphina’s unique personal habit following the war left me dismayed. I believe my favorite character was Francesca, who, of course, is the first to go. She was strong and such a loving and careful caregiver to her two children.
Bohjalian gives us lots of false clues, and it isn’t until the very end of the story that everything is tied together.
I found this to be a great read, with much fodder for discussion.
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