Ethereal Reader: The Light in the Ruins

searchTuscany, 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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2 thoughts on “Ethereal Reader: The Light in the Ruins

  1. I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a big reader of mystery genre but I think this is my favorite mystery I’ve ever read.
    I most always enjoy a story that goes back and forth between time. I thought the author did a good job with this and it was a nice way to weave the story.
    I loved the setting of the novel as I have traveled in that area of Italy. There was a part toward the end of the book when several characters were winding their way up to a church set high up in a small town. It reminded me of a walk I took in Cortona and that brought back a vivid memory and was fun.
    The mystery kept me going to the very end and made me jumpy the night I finished the book when I turned out my lights!
    I found the characters likable with Christina being my favorite. I enjoyed learning about the Italians experience of WWII and don’t believe I’ve ever read about their perspective during that war previously. I agree with Kris that it is likely in general and as news was leaked the general citizens of the country were horrified to be on the side of the Nazis. There was no winning from that side in so many perspectives. But what would any of us done to protect our families from the horrors going on around us?
    One of my fav story lines was that of Christina and Fredrick. I enjoyed (for once) a storyline of a German soldier that was a good, kind man doing the job he was committed to. Kris, Fransesca was one of my least fav characters! I’m afraid the war would have brought out similar personality traits in me. Seraphina’s “personal habit” I believe, was to show the effects of war long after war ends.
    This book was just the right edgy in a setting I love! I would give it a 10 out of 10 rating.

  2. ​My review of this book is so different from everyone else’s that I almost wonder if I should re-read it. I was never engaged with either the plot or the characters, so the only way it was a page-turner for me was that I couldn’t wait to have it finished.

    ​I love reading mysteries, and both Kris and Jen think it’s an excellent mystery. For me, there wasn’t enough of the actual mystery, and especially not enough of how Serafina went about solving the mystery. I think I would have enjoyed more of the “procedural” element of solving it. Perhaps it was just a little too intellectual for me, since the author used background and characters to hint at possible suspects.

    ​I did find the whole Etruscan artifact part of the story quite interesting. But, if there was something significant about the fact that it was Etruscan, I missed that. Again, I suppose I never worked hard enough to figure it out.

    ​I would never advise anyone not to read this, especially since everyone else enjoyed it so much. All I can say is that I didn’t find it engaging and I would never pick up another book by this writer.

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