I love Chris Bohjalian best when he is writing historical fiction (i.e., "Skeletons at the Feast", "Sandcastle Girls"); his new novel is part historical fiction part murder mystery called, "The Light in the Ruins" and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The setting is Tuscany which afforded him a lush and vivid palette upon which to paint his story. The time is WWII and ten years after.
Set in two time-frames, the story revolves around the Rosatis family. In 1943-44, Italy is being run by the Nazis and the Fascists, partisans live in the hills and attempt as much damage to both as possible. The Rosatis family has a villa in the countryside where years before an Etruscan tomb was unearthed. The Nazis have been plundering Italian art and artifacts bringing their unwanted attention to the Rosatis. Our protagonist Serafina Bettini, is a member of a band of partisans.
In 1955 the story becomes a murder mystery when remaining members of the Rosatis family are murdered in a specifically grizzly fashion. Serafina is now a police detective in Florence. She has been physically and psychologically damaged by her partisan past. Bohjalian does a terrific job of bringing us into her world where she is something of a freak being a physically deformed former killer, a woman detective, and single at 30 in 1955; nothing normal about any of that!
For me, a good historical novel sends me happily researching to find out more about the time and the setting. "The Light in the Ruins" sent me off to explore Etruscan art, Chimera, the Ahnenerbe, and the Italian resistance movement. I've had the fortune to have visited Florence, Rome, the Uffizi, and even little Fiesole, so I reveled in Bohjalian's descriptions of these places and my memories of them.
I would like to echo Chris Bohjalian's own recommendation in his "Acknowledgements" and urge readers interested in Italy during WWII to also read Mary Doria Russell's excellent novel, "A Thread of Grace".
Two time periods alternate chapters in this story: 1943/44 and 1955. To say that Italy was in flux in 1943/44 would be an understatement. The war was turning against the Axis, and it was clear Italy would become a battleground. Germany, ostensibly Italy's ally, tore off the disguise of friend and became an occupier. Former enthusiastic supporters of the Fascist Blackshirts were hedging their bets. Anti-fascist partisans prowled the hills, sabotaging the German war effort. Ordinary Italians just tried to weather the storm.
For the noble Rosati family, living in the Villa Chimera in the Tuscan hill country near Florence, the harsh reality of war could still almost be ignored. Cristina, 18 years old, took daily rides on her beloved horse, went swimming in the pool with her young niece and nephew, and shared meals and wine with her sister-in-law and her parents. Her two brothers were in the army, but Vittore was nearby, in Florence, and Marco in Sicily. Maybe the war would be over soon and they could all be together once again.
But the turmoil of Italy, as the war drew to its cataclysmic end, plays out in microcosm at the Villa Chimera. There are angry murmurs in the village, and even among some family members, about Antonio Rosati's having Germans as guests at the Villa Chimera. Now, one of those German guests and his own daughter Cristina seem to be falling in love. As the fighting between the Germans and the Allies and partisans intensifies, the Tuscan hills become a battleground and the Villa Chimera transforms from a haven to a pawn of war.
Ten years after the war's end, Serafina Bettini is one of very few female police officers in Italy, and definitely the only homicide detective. Together with her partner and mentor, Paolo Ficino, she is investigating the shocking case of a killer targeting the Rosati family.
This killer, whose chilling voice appears at the start of the 1955 chapters, has already slaughtered two members of the family and cut out their hearts. The killer tells us that the job won't be finished until all the descendants of Antonio Rosati are wiped out. Serafina's investigation will bring her back to the Tuscan hills where she fought alongside her partisan comrades, and memories of the battle that left her scarred in body and mind.
I tore through The Light in the Ruins in just two sittings. Bohjalian deftly brings his large cast of characters to life. They are complex and flawed; the Rosatis put into a nearly impossible situation that forces us to ask ourselves what we would have done in their situation.
In mystery fiction, it's almost a cliché at this point to have the killer's monologue interspersed in the story, but it didn't feel that way in this book. Instead, each time the killer speaks, it ratchets up the tension as another Rosati is stalked and we receive tantalizing hints about the killer's motivation and identity.
Alternating chapters between two different time periods is also a commonplace in novels now, but the technique is used to good effect here. The story of Serafina and the Rosatis in 1955 shows us the scars of the war, and the 1943/44 chapters vividly illustrate how they were earned.
The Light in the Ruins is a gripping, suspenseful and haunting historical novel that should appeal to regular readers of Bohjalian's work and fans of historical novels and mysteries. Hardcore mystery readers might quibble at the book's relative lack of investigative detail, but I think most would welcome a series featuring Serafina Bettini.
Chris Bohjalian transports us over a 12 year time period moving us from 1943 and 1955 - it is a synchronization that compels the reader to go on a journey with the author's subject and characters. Historically, it is carefully written portraying the atrocities of WWII reverberating in the bucolic ancient villa of the Rosati family.
The author astonishes the reader immediately with a grotesque murder of a beautiful woman in 1955. Her heart is cut out of her body and placed on a dressing table in her squalid apartment in Florence, Italy. The murderer addresses the reader in first person and we are immediately caught up in extreme act of violence and hatred. And whom did he kill? Not a Nazi or a Mussolini supporter, but a young widow, Francesca Rosati, in her 30's who lost her Italian husband and two children in 1943.
The story behind this act brings to light the dichotomy between the ardent Nazis, with little or no education of artifacts and the serene, elegant Rosati villa with its symbols and tombs. Believing that their family would be safe, the Rosatis, of noble lineage, carry on their usual idyllic life far removed from the European War. This sanctuary is abandoned when two soldiers, one German and one Italian descend on the villa asking to see the Etruscan burial site and later demanding hospitality.
The author also depicts Cristina Rosati, the youngest daughter, as a profound character whose experiences and actions during 1943 impacts the genius of the plot. Another beautiful Italian, Serafina Bettini, is an investigator for the Florence police and is assigned to the horrific murder of Francesca. Serrafina endures her own emotional and physical scars as she unfolds the Rosati cold-blooded murders. The story is a moral contradiction as the ironies of shattered lives are unveiled to the reader. This novel had depth and deserved a better title, however. It is a captivating study of human weakness against a backdrop of the exquisite Italian landscape. 4.5 stars
on July 9, 2013
1943: The Rosatis, an Italian family of noble lineage, believe that the walls of their ancient villa will keep them safe from the war raging across Europe. But when two soldiers, a German and an Italian, arrive at the villa asking to see an ancient Etruscan burial site, the Rosatis' quiet life is shattered. A young German lieutenant begins to court Cristina, the Nazis descend upon the estate demanding hospitality, and what was once their sanctuary becomes their prison.
1955: A serial killer is targeting the Rosatis, murdering the remnants of the family one-by-one in cold blood. Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence police department, has her own demons and haunting memories of the war. But when she is assigned to the case, she finds herself digging into the victims' past and her own tragic history.
I read everything this author writes. Most I love, some are just ok. This one was just ok for me. I'm not sure exactly what didn't work for me. I enjoyed it when I was reading it--it just wasn't one of those that called to me. I felt like Serafina's connection to the murders was a stretch. What are the chances of her investigating murders that involved her past? I felt for all the Rosatis had to go through...I just didn't really connect with them. Many of the artifacts were unfamiliar to me and I had to look them up to fully understand what they were talking about. There were a lot of secondary characters introduced that really didn't have a lot to do with the story. The murderer's identity was a surprise for me too because he wasn't mentioned a lot in the story either. I will still read Bohjalian's future novels. This one just wasn't a favorite for me.
I'm a little baffled by the glowing reviews for this book. I felt that it dragged. It took me two weeks to read and it was only sheer stubbornness that kept me going. It's set in Tuscany and the story unfolds in dual storylines. In 1943-44, the wealthy Rosati family are living in the Villa Chimera and somewhat reluctantly playing host to a number of Nazis who come to visit a recently discovered Etruscan tomb on their land. In 1955, the same family are being targeted one by one by a serial killer. Detective Serafina Bettini is trying to find the serial killer and to understand what might have happened during the war to make the family a target today. She will also discover that she holds a very personal connection with the Rosati family.
One thing that frustrated me about this book is that it couldn't decide what it wanted to be. In part, it's a murder mystery, but there is virtually no way that the reader can work out the solution for themselves. In part it's a romance, but it felt like the author lost interest in the romance because it's almost entirely absent from the final third of the book. Moreover, the way that the story is told in two timeframes means that much of the suspense from the 1943 events is lost because we already have a sense of what is going to happen and who is going to survive that period.
There is a large host of characters and they all tend to blur. I didn't really feel any connection to any of them, except maybe to Cristina and Serafina, but even then there was so much going on that Cristina almost fades away as a main character and Serafina doesn't have enough of an arc. Sensitive readers should also be aware that there are graphic murder details and other cruelty eg to animals is spelled out in detail.
Chris Bohjalians' book tells three stories: that of a murderer who is systematically killing the members of the Rosati family and cutting out their hearts, that of the Rosati family during the war, and that of Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence Police Department.
The book tells of a difficult and devastating time in Italy's history. The year is 1943. Italy has gone from being German's ally to being an occupied nation. US forces are moving north and the Nazis are alternately constructing barriers, blowing up bridges, and committing acts of unspeakable and unnecessary acts of cruelty. There are remaining Blackshirt loyalists but there are Partisans as well, the Italian resistance movement.
The Rosati family has lived an idyllic existence on their villa, less touched by the war than many. The Marquese and Marquesa have their stables, their pool, their olive groves... and an ancient Etruscan burial site tucked away on their estate. One son, an engineer, is in Sicily, supervising the mining of the beaches. His wife is tucked away on the estate with her two small children. Another son is close by, doing his best to preserve Italy's treasures, quietly hating the Nazis who are plundering. The youngest of the Rosatis, their daughter Cristina, still rides her horse and splashes in the pool with her niece and nephew. But life rapidly goes downhill. Cristina falls in love with a young German lieutenant, to the horror of her family. The Germans make themselves more and more at home on the villa, raising the ire of the villagers and the family. The Germans become more cruel more destructive as the end of the war looms closer.
Simultaneously in our story, we are in 1955, a mere 12 years later. The scars of war remain. And someone is single-handedly going after each surviving member of the Rosati family. The case is being investigated by Serafina Bettini, who was a partisan during the war, who suffered horrible injuries, and is forever scarred, literally and figuratively.
The killer stalks the Rosatis. Serafina stalks the killer. History becomes suspense.
I loved this book. I kept it nearby and went back to it at every opportunity. And while it is not a fast read, it is a compelling one. Here, then are the Top Ten Things That Are Great About "The Light in the Ruins."
10. I chose the book because it was listed as a mystery. This is not entirely accurate; it is more of a historical novel. But if it had been listed with the historical novels, I never would have picked it up and become immersed in the telling of a very confusing, intriguing time in Italy's history, and another chilling view of World War II.
9. Bohjalian writes brilliant characters. They are flawed, they are human, they are tragic, and strong and weak. They are all very real and all very different.
8. If you are a student of "Dante's Inferno," this is a book for you.
7. The author slips seamlessly between the two time periods, and between the characters: the Rosati family, the killer, and the investigating team. This can be an annoying convention in a book. It isn't annoying here.
6. The author can really turn a phrase. Vivid descriptions flow, without slowing the story. You see the hills of Tuscany, you hear the ominous explosions, you smell the fields and the devastation, you tempt your tastebuds with some of the meals. And you'll read phrases like "...when he looked back at her, she knew he was going to open up like a cooked mussel."
5. Research, research, research. Bohjalian has done an amazing job of it, from the mood of the times, the tensions, the encroaching and devastating Nazi occupation, the fierce determination and bravery of the Partisans, the advance of the German army. There is a lot of history in there that never feels like you're learning history; it is a story of people in a period of time, which is, after all, what history is.
4. Along those lines, you'll get a healthy dose of history, and one that isn't always covered in the textbooks. Italy was in such a confusing place in 1943. Mussolini had just been ousted. The Blackshirt loyalists were no longer the darlings of the Nazis... or anybody, it would seem. I found it to be a compelling retelling of a fascinating dark chapter in history.
3. As a baby boomer, it was good for me to understand how recent the war was, and how fresh were the wounds of our parents and families. No one escaped unscathed, and by 1955, the book reminds us, the scars and horrors were still all too fresh.
2. Serafina is convinced that the crimes go back to the war, and slowly she unravels the threads leading to the happenings 12 years ago, the events and actions in the Rosatis' lives that led to the murders happening in 1955. It is a wonderful unraveling, as the stories play out.
1. What would I have done? That's a question the book forces you to ask. And the answers, as they were for the Rosatis, and for everyone who actually had any choices, were so very difficult.
A friend of mine (who isn't necessarily a reader of Chris Bohjalian anyway) mentioned that this is a "murder mystery," and he doesn't read those. Well, there is murder, and a mystery, but it isn't THAT kind of book, either. This is another polished, well written historical fiction, in the vein of Bohjalian's previous WW2 novel, Skeletons at the Feast: Real people caught up in the horrifying situation around them.
Alternating between Florence, Italy 1943, and 1955, we first hear from a murderer, and shockingly, hear the plans for the murder of a whole family. Bohjalian weaves the stories of the characters he introduces, and he makes them very real, very human, and utterly flawed. The reader doesn't necessarily like the Rosati family entirely, but one can certainly understand them, and their actions during the war. Serafina, a female detective is a mystery herself.
The Rosati estate, Villa Chimera, is in the Nazi's crosshairs during the occupation, for its Etruscan tomb and artworks. The Rosati family, including the teenage daughter, Cristina and son Marco's wife, Francesca, with their two young children, are under constant scrutiny from the Nazis, and Marchese Rosati does what he can to protect his family and his property, while his sons are reluctantly taking part in the Axis war efforts. American and British forces close in on the southern shores of Italy, and the Nazis, always frightening, are even more terrifying as they try to escape the Allied onslaught...
No need to spoil the story! The plot is complicated and it is mysterious, but not in a cheesy, "murder mystery" way. (Not that there is anything wrong with a good murder mystery, of course, if that is your genre of choice.)
Well written, enjoyable reading, great plot, character development is a tad weak, but more than adequate, especially when Bohjalian introduces us to an expansive cast of characters, without overwhelming the reader.
When I closed this book after being glued to the pages for hours, I was struck by many emotions -- chief among them -- satisfaction. It has been quite awhile since I've read a novel that touched me on so many levels. Simply, it is an enthralling tale of enduring love, family bonds, war's devastation, of inexplicable loss, and unending bereavement. It drew me in immediately and never let go. Put this one on your BUY list at publication: July, 2013!
The noble Rosati family lives in quiet luxury in a lovely villa south of Florence in 1943. War is raging throughout Europe and the Germans occupying the area initially come to their door seeking Etruscan artifacts from an ancient burial ground on Rosati land to send out of the country, demanding allegiance from the Italians, and eventually commandeering their property. What was once an idyllic life becomes a nightmare and their villa a prison as little by little the family is shattered.
Flash to 1955 and witness a cold blooded murder of the Rosati's daughter-in-law, Francesca, who had suffered horrendously at the hands of the Germans as they were fleeing Italy ahead of the Allies in 1944. The detective assigned to the investigation for the Florence Police Department is Serafina Bettini. She has unspeakable memories of the war and the scars to prove her own involvement and painful history.
Suspenseful and beautifully written, the story is both mystery and historical fashion blended into a book that will have the reader thinking about it long after the ending. I'm afraid I can't do the review justice or describe all the reasons explaining how much I loved it, but I'll be recommending it to everyone I know!
Thank you to Netgalley and Doubleday Publishing for the ebook to review.
on June 8, 2013
'The Light in the Ruins' is a tale of vengeance - nursed and considered for nearly a decade, violence brought round at last, a final, intimate battle long after the war was over.
Chris Bohjalian's tale is told in three merging arcs. Once take place in the 1940s in Italy, with the war in Europe reaching its crescendo of violence and the Italians finding themselves on the wrong side of it. One family, the Rosatis, is forced to give up the use of their beautiful estate to house German troops, even as the Nazis pillage the grounds for ancient Italian artifacts and treasures. A second arc develops in 1955, with the Italian police investigating a grisly murder - the body of a woman discovered by her sister, alone, with her heart removed and set on a table like a gift. The third story arc comes from the killer's perspective, and reveals the developing plan to murder all the surviving members of the Rosati family.
Each part of the story is unveiled carefully, deliberately, and gradually - keeping the reader guessing as to the identity of the killer even as we're reading the words he or she is writing. It could be a man, or it could be a woman - it could be a Nazi soldier or it could be the Italian farmhand on the Rosati estate. The steady revelation of not only the killer's plan, but what the Rosatis did to engender such long-held hatred and how the police detective assigned to the case is also involved, is done elegantly and intelligently. While the overall story is handled well, it's made more personal and real in the details - a specific thing someone saw or heard or felt, like the way mortar shells splashing in a pool seem almost playful, or the lasting memory of cracked ribs in an opened human chest.
'The Light in the Ruins' is a complicated story, involving war and art and family politics and many different characters. Bohjalian does a mostly masterful job in keeping it all manageable for the reader, though there were a few places where the story dragged on to illustrate something about Italian art or to drive a point home. These places were rare, and the balancing act of the three different story arcs was impressive and suspenseful.
In the end, I believed in this 11-year grudge, this act of delayed revenge. I believed in this family who thought they had paid their debt and found out that they weren't quite done paying yet. I found myself believing that - justified or not, rational or not - some experiences demand an extreme response. Cold-blooded though it may be, sometimes revenge is a dish best served cold.
on July 10, 2013
I really wanted to like this book. It has all of the elements that I enjoy in a good book; written by a great author, historical fiction, murder mystery, and switching back and forth between time periods. Unfortunately, this book let me down in all aspects.
The numerous characters were hard to identify with, and they just became names. The switching back and forth between time periods became confusing, and I found myself having to go back a few pages to remember what time period I was in. I felt that I had to work too hard to enjoy this book.