Alice, a wealthy English girl, marries Claudio Orsini, ten years her senior, much to the horror of her parents. With naïve optimism, Alice and Claudio purchase a 3500-acre tumbledown Tuscan villa. Having entered a life she knows nothing about, Alice copes by teaching illiterate children.
Copenhagen Royal Academy of Art graduate, Kristin, travels to Italy to sketch the great sculptures. Marshall, a restorer of paintings, takes her under his wing. Although talented, she is trusting to a fault.
Kristin and Alice's lives intersect against the backdrop of war-torn Italy in 1944 and the mystique of the Tuscany region. For these women sexual dalliances have dire consequences. Paintings are not the only thing being restored in this novel. Fallible human beings seek redemption.
The author spins out his story by examining the remorseful self-examinations of both female characters. The frequently changing points of view reflect the unsettled lives of the characters. The technique is interesting and original, but it slows the pace of the plot. Readers willing to use their imagination and draw their own conclusions will reap rewards by the end of the novel. Olafsson is a writer who makes his readers think rather than feeding his tale to them on a silver platter. The writer of the book jacket synopsis took the opposite approach--telling us more than we'd like to know upfront.
Lovers of literary fiction who appreciate the craft of writing will enjoy this book. Those of us who have committed an offense and seek absolution will revel in Olafsson's tenderness toward sympathetic female characters. The book is well titled and well crafted.
...and by my title I don't mean anything graphic, but rather I admire the style and plot of this outstanding book. Against the background of WWII in Italy, this novel explores the themes of the loss of a child, adultery and its consequences on two women, and forgiveness or the lack thereof. The story's main characters are Alice, an English ex-patriate who is married to an Italian and is conflicted at adjusting to rural villa life, and Kristin, a Scandinavian neophyte artist in Rome who finds her painting career being side-tracked by her art restoration employment from her eventual lover. How Alice suffers with the aftermath of adultery, how Kristin plots revenge as the 'other woman' in an affair, and their intersection as war intrudes upon their lives make up the basics of this intricate yet believeable and highly readable novel.
I highly recommend this book.
on January 13, 2012
It has been a while since I have read a book where the overall story was the star, and the characters were necessary components to reach the final page. I enjoyed "Restoration", by Olaf Olafsson, very much. The human failings and strengths of each character add shaded complexities to the horrific World War II story line. The contrast of the settings of glorious Tuscany and the destruction from bombing, killing and marauding invaders is piercing. There is no hero or heroine in this story, but a collection of people and lives that you hope will somehow be set to rights. There are secrets, betrayals, devastating loss, and mysteries which propel the characters toward resolutions and new beginnings. Alice is the wealthy daughter of a class-conscious British family. She shocks everyone by marrying Claudio, an entitled minor-landowner, and moving with him to Tuscany. They begin their life together in a once-beautiful villa in need of much repair. As they work side by side to build a dream life, they try to ignore their underlying differences. A much-loved son, Giovanni, is born, and they find a measure of contentment. However, as the villa and its lands begin to flourish, more and more demands are made upon both Claudio and Alice. He is very much a man of the land and his dependents, and she begins to long for tastes of the life she left behind. She recklessly reaches out for greater fulfillment, and yet she is not without guilt and self-recrimination. The illness and eventual death of young Giovanni pushes Claudio and Alice further apart. Her intended reparation to their marriage is halted by Claudio's strange disappearance. Alice is left to manage the villa and its lands with the help of a devoted family friend, Pritchett. As the war progresses, more and more seekers of sanctuary descend upon Alice and her home. One of them, a young woman named Kristin, comes bearing a serious wound and deep secrets which could gravely affect many in their wake. The effects of our actions and missteps are very much evident here, and those with survivor guilt must find a way to move forward. Chose to live, and live the life you are given. This is a book which will make you want to read it all in one setting. You will want to know how the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place. A very good read.
on February 7, 2012
This is the story of two women, who even though they've never met, their lives will become intricately connected. English ex-patriate Alice shocks her family when she marries an older Italian, Claudio Orsini, and together they buy a rundown villa in Tuscany. While Alice initially immerses herself in the restoration of the villa, surrounding buildings and farmer tenants, it doesn't take long before she misses the British social life in Rome. However, her actions at one of these parties will change the course of her life. She is left dealing with feelings of guilt, heart-breaking loss and ultimately her own survival when the Germans retreat and plunder their way through Tuscany in 1944.
In Rome, we meet Kristin, a Scandinavian fledging artist who interns under Marshall, a renowned restoration artist. She is young and trusting and falls under Marshall's spell, eventually becoming his lover, but the bloom of love soon fades. Kristin plans the perfect revenge against her lover using her own restoration skills, or so she thinks, until events spiral out of control leaving her trying desperately to undo a crime against art itself.
The story follows these two women, told in first person for Alice and third person for Kristin. What do these seemingly random women have in common? It is only when Kristin shows up at Alice's villa seeking sanctuary from the retreating Germans that we begin to learn their darkest secrets and how their lives intersect. While both women suffer in the war, I found that I was much more invested in Kristin's story. The character of Alice seemed flat to me and I found the constant shifting of POVs to be confusing at times. It took a few paragraphs to realize that I was once again in Alice's head.
The author is at his best with a final chapter that shines when all the pieces of their lives fall into place. Fans of literary fiction will definitely enjoy this book.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
on August 16, 2012
Olaf Olafsson's "Restoration" tells the stories of two women in Italy during WWII: English ex-pat Alice, married to the Italian Claudio, who disappeared following the death of their young son and Alice's inability to answer for where she was at the moment he died; and young Kristin, an artist from Iceland who finds her way to Rome to work with Robert Marshall, the renowned art restoration master. The women's stories intersect when Kristin, wounded from a bomb blast, shows up at Alice's farm in rural Tuscany. Her arrival there isn't random, but we don't know why she's come there until nearly the end of the story. These women have two main things in common: adultery and loss, but neither knows the other's story at any point in the book. They both have many secrets to hide, and as the war comes closer to their doorstep, the stakes get higher and their seemingly unrelated stories start to make sense for the reader.
Sounds exciting, no? Well, it really wasn't. The story is told too slowly and not in an active enough voice to create real drama or tension, even with bombs landing near them. It really plods along, and with the frequent jumping back and forth between protagonists, voices and even verb tense (part of Alice's story is told in the present tense, but the rest of the book is in past tense), it is disjointed and cumbersome to follow. After a while, you pick up the pattern and realize that, when the chapter is written in the first person, Alice is speaking. But the book bounces back and forth, and sometimes retells the same story from the other woman's perspective. It's just kind of messy and distracting.
I never found myself getting deeply into this book or really caring about the characters. Olafsson takes too long to build the story and the link between the women (which only Kristin is ever aware of), and the characters are not overly sympathetic. Yes, we should feel bad for Alice that she lost her son and bad for Kristin that her father died when she was young, but their current state of affairs is entirely their own doing. They both seem to be strong women in some regards, but it's largely because clinging on to the activities that make them seem strong is really the only way for them to cope.
It took me nearly a month to read through the entire book and I did it more as a sense of obligation. Not a page turner by any means. If you don't mind books that constantly jump between characters, timeframes, voices and verb tenses, you might be able to get into this book. But it just didn't do it for me.
on March 9, 2014
There is no doubt that the ability to write an entire novel that feels like a dream is admirable. I tried to "go with the flow" while the author made unannounced shifts in time, tense and point of view but wound up seasick. Also I found it difficult to become involved with the characters as they seemed to have little depth despite ample display of their psychological states.
Looking at the positive here, the depiction of the lives of expatriates in WW2-era Italy, and of so many aspects that we need to remember about the horrors of war as the German withdrawal rolls over this beautiful but troubled area, has distinct value. It has been a few days since I finished reading this unusual novel, and as I let it settle, I thought about the two main characters, both female. One, of course, is an English woman who marries a somewhat aristocratic Italian and the other a pale young Icelandic artist whose working life introduces us to both historic painting technique and the politics of these national treasures versus the domineering, acquisitive conquerors - and the manner in which these two lives vaguely intersect. It is too bad that they remain cardboard cutouts. However, much of the writing is beautiful and I'd say there is a lot to learn from it ... besides the fact that if you're a publisher, your novel gets published.
on February 9, 2012
A picturesquely described Italian countryside is the setting for this WWII novel of love and betrayal, as the Allied armies are gaining ground, and the farmhouse where most of the action takes place is gradually but inexorably becoming the front line of battle. There are two main characters, both women, Kristin an artist and restorer of damaged but valuable paintings, who is Icelandic like the author, and Alice, an English expatriate who married an Italian man against her family's wishes and then became restless and involved in an affair, and who is loosely based on real life Iris Origo. The poignant intertwining of their lives is easy to keep track of because Kristin's story is told in the third person while Alice tells her story in the first person, addressed to her missing husband.
on July 26, 2012
As I read the first few chapters, I became aware that I had already read this story. But no--I had read War in Val D'Orsia: An Italian War Diary by Iris Origo. Olafsson takes his main character from the Marchesa Iris Origo--and her story, restoration of a villa in San Martino with her Italian husband and an English architect,the death of her only son, et. al.
I recommend Iris Origo's diary and her biography by Caroline Moorehead--the real story is far more interesting.
on July 28, 2014
I found this an absolutely riveting story. The setting in WW II Italy during the German retreat was interesting and, I assume, accurately portrayed, and the element of art restoration and artistic fraud also was very engaging. It reminded me some of a novel by Robertson Davies that also deals with art forgeries, though I've forgotten which one it is. At any rate, I could not put this book down, both because I wanted to know what was going to happen and because I cared about some of the characters. I know another reviewer felt they were amateurishly drawn, but I didn't feel that way at all. A couple of them have stuck with me months after finishing the book. Highly recommended.
The official book description gives a fine overview about the characters and the action, and starts off with these words: searing, love/war, betrayal, and redemption. I agree with these descriptors, yet I'm not certain about any "redemption" coming to fruition, in the sense that any "amends" were ever made.
I see this as a beautifully written novel full of well-developed characters, most of whom are already living with enormous regrets when they find themselves uprooted and roiled by opposing armies. I can't remember when my reading has ever before given me a sense of the helplessness of innocent bystanders who are caught in the midst of battling opponents. I felt "the horror."
As a keen observer of human nature, Olafsson artfully shows us the moral fiber of his characters, in the first person (as with Alice, the protagonist) and omnisciently (below, about the priest):
"When he was young, he had trained for the priesthood because it was the obvious choice: he had a head for books and liked to sleep late. The job involved sacrifices, there was no denying that, but his housekeeper had turned out to be both pretty and discreet. He had worried more about the gossip of his parishioners than about the opinion of God, in whom he believed only in moderation. His housekeeper was as sincerely attached to him as he was to her; few marriages were as happy." (12)
There is also some scathing commentary woven in about the phoniness of the art world: "Marshall stands up once the first course has been served and addresses his guests. His words sound familiar to her--`In the face of great art we are all equal; it unites us, its sublime intent raises us above petty squabbles, its pure and unadulterated claim on a higher purpose, its universal quality, independent of nationality, of longitude or latitude, of the soil from which we are sprung, of the vagaries of our time.' His guests nod, some hesitantly, others enthusiastically, and applaud when he sits down after concluding his speech. Smiling at him, Flora takes his hand. `Bon appetit.' " (105)
Mostly, I thought "Restoration" was about the human capacity for destructiveness: "The farmers brought the bodies down the steep slope on a cart, which was no easy undertaking in the mud, but they were in a hurry to see them buried. They drank coffee in the kitchen while Pritchett supervised the laying of the bodies in the simple coffins that the carpenter started making this morning. They were all young men and of course there was no way of telling which faction they had belonged to--in death they were all alike, peasant lads snatched by fate." (120)
"Acknowledgments" revealed that Olafsson had drawn on diaries kept by Iris Origo during 1943-44, and later published as "War in Val d'Orcia," Caroline Moorehead's biography, "Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia," and "The Rape of Europe," by Lynn H. Nicholas. I liked "Restoration" even more upon realizing this. "Restoration" had a very authentic quality.