by Chris Bohjalian
Genres: Historical Fiction
Purchase*: Amazon *affiliate
From the New York Times bestselling author of Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls comes a spellbinding novel of love, despair, and revenge—set in war-ravaged Tuscany.1943: Tucked away in the idyllic hills south of Florence, 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. Eighteen-year-old Cristina spends her days swimming in the pool, playing with her young niece and nephew, and wandering aimlessly amid the estate’s gardens and olive groves. But when two soldiers, a German and an Italian, arrive at the villa asking to see an ancient Etruscan burial site, the Rosatis’ bucolic tranquility 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: Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence police department, has her own demons. A beautiful woman, Serafina carefully hides her scars along with her haunting memories of the war. But when she is assigned to a gruesome new case—a serial killer targeting the Rosatis, murdering the remnants of the family one-by-one in cold blood—Serafina finds herself digging into a past that involves both the victims and her own tragic history. Set against an exquisitely rendered Italian countryside, The Light in the Ruins unveils a breathtaking story of moral paradox, human frailty, and the mysterious ways of the heart.
I requested to review The Light of the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian for three reasons. I have loved every book Chris has ever written, it’s set in Italy and takes place during and after WWII a period in history I find fascinating. Once again Bohjalian delivered and I found myself swept up in the murder mystery, the history of the Rosatis family and Germany’s impact on Italy and its people. Three word review: captivating, dark and breathtaking.
The tale begins in 1955 Florence, Italy with a gruesome murder. Here we meet Serafina Bettini. She is a detective and the only woman on the force. She is both beautiful and scared. Her scars run deep inside and out. As she investigates the case brings up memories of her past and the final years of the war. The case has her revisiting 1943 and the noble lineage of the Rosatis family. The tale that unfolds gives us an intimate look at this family, the countryside, Bettini, and into the mind of a killer.
Bohjalian delivers memorable characters and shares all of their idiosyncrasies. Serafina Bettini is an interesting and dark character. As a detective she is quite insightful and I enjoyed how she pursed the case. Her personal life is complicated, and those around her may think they know her but most will never see past the glamour she has so carefully constructed. Her flat mate perhaps knows her best, and he helped reveal the darker facets of her personality. I pitied her but also found her to inspiring. The Rosatis family was beautifully revealed to us. We saw the toll the war has on them, the dynamics of their family and believe me you will become attached as they tug and rip at your heart. Christina the only daughter, dubbed by locals as the princess, came of age during the war and although sheltered, felt the effects it had. Her story was touching and I felt for her. We meet a young German soldier and I liked how Bohjalian was able to show both the patriot side of him and the man within the uniform. He shares their forbidden love from the sweet side to the dark and I was completely enthralled. German soldiers, other members of the Rosatis family, partisans and those Serafina interviewed helped to give substance to the tale(s) as they unfolded. While the tale was told in third person, the author gives us a first person perspective from the killer and it was terrifying to glimpse inside his mind.
I really enjoy the pacing of The Light in the Ruins and the panoramic view the author gave us of Italy during and after the war. This novel didn’t have quite the depth of Sandcastle Girls but I think it will make it appeal to a larger audience. Usually when a novel deals with the past and present I find I enjoy the past more, but he made both parts of the story compelling keeping me equally enthralled. The time periods alternate back and forth and it flowed effortlessly. Once again the author has done his research making this fiction come to life with historical facts. 1943-44 was a difficult time for Italy. Germany who declared themselves ally to Italy slowly became occupier. Citizens were divided in loyalties and others just did whatever was necessary for the safety of their families. Bohjalian brought all of this to life and captured both the beauty and the pain of this era. Fast forward to 1955 and we see Italy after the war, and what happen to the Rosatis family; the cost of the war evident in their faces. I found Serafina’s story fascinating and enjoyed how the details were slowly revealed to us. The author didn’t gloss over the fact that both war and murder are ugly; instead he shows us all sides from the residents to the occupiers. Those who enjoy WWII historical fiction will find this telling to be realistic. The murder ties the characters together and was clever and compelling. The identity of the killer had me guessing until almost the end, when the pieces clicked for me before the reveal and it felt very genuine. The tale wrapped up nicely and I closed the book feeling like I knew the characters personally. While parts of the tale where dark I felt light for having read it. I have always wanted to travel to Italy to see our ancestor’s home and the author has me yearning to see Tuscany.
The Light of Ruins is a book I would recommend to both fans of character driven and historical novels, while the tale is steeped in history it flowed effortlessly and felt timeless. Chris Bohjalian is an author on my auto-buy list and I cannot wait to read more of this authors work.