Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, so I always look forward to reading his newest novel. Recently, he has occasionally drifted away from the New England locales of most of his novels, for which he has been criticized, although I continued to enjoy his stories like Skeletons At the Feast, with the theme of a defeated Germany in WWII, and The Sandcastle Girls, with a theme of the Armenian genocide that few Americans know much about. The latter was particularly good. Therefore, when I read that The Light in the Ruins was another historically based novel, I did not expect that would be problematic for me. However, although this was an interesting story and basically well written, somehow the author missed his mark and I came away from it feeling disappointed.
As is typical of many novels these days, there are parallel stories going on, with one story ultimately affecting the other. In this case, Bohjalian is telling the story of a noble Italian family, the Rosatis, in Tuscany during WWII in 1943/44, who have for many years during the conflict managed to avoid and ignore the worst of it, until the war began turning against the Italian allies, Nazi Germany. When Germany discards their facade of being allies with Italy and essentially become their occupier, and as a result there is conflict and turmoil within the Rosati family. Two sons are in the Italian army, Marco in Sicily and Vittore in Florence. The assumption by their family is that they are in “safe” locations. Marco, however, experiences first hand, the Allies’ invasion of Italy and the real horrors of the war. Vittore convinces himself he is protecting the Italian art world as he works with the Germans and their art thievery. At the villa, called Chimera, the remaining family refuses to recognize the reality of the war that they have so far been able to ignore, living with what they consider some minor inconveniences, and attempting to continue living as much as possible as they always have. They believed the family would be reunited when the war ended and they could resume their prior lives of comfort and wealth. At the villa are Antonio Rosati, the patriarch of the family, his wife, his son Marco’s wife and two children, and his daughter Cristina.
Gradually, however, the war invades their quiet, “normal” lives. The Germans have intruded on them and neighbors and townspeople are beginning to resent the family’s having German guests at the villa, and become even more suspect when one of them and Cristina begin to fall in love begin to have a relationship. The Germans at the same time, begin to feel nothing but disdain for the family and the villa becomes a distortion of the safe haven it had once been for the family.
This story of the Rosati family is told through chapters that alternate with the story of monstrous murder in 1953 of two family members. This part of the story is partially narrated by the murderer himself, though the reader has no idea who the murderer is. I made several guesses and until the end, wasn’t even close. The other part of this murder mystery focuses on Serafina Bettini, a female homicide detective who had previously been a partisan during the war. She is badly scarred both physically and emotionally but a good detective, and the Rosati killings result in her own demons resurfacing, so this becomes a story within a story within a story.
As usual, Bohjalian’s characters are well developed, well defined, and each a dichotomy of good and bad. In other words, they are normal people, if somewhat flawed, dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Even some of the Germans are portrayed with a conscience and conflict within, although some are portrayed as pure evil. Everyone, including Rosatis themselves, as well as a number of the Germans and even the partisans, are forced by their situations as a result of the war to make choices that are nearly impossible to make. A good author asks the reader to question themselves as to what they would do in a similar situation, and in this, Bohjalian hits his mark.
Overall, however, I came away from the story tired of the alternating chapters, feeling it was a contrived gimmick, and since the story was told within a 10-year span, don’t think it was a necessary tool to move it along. A more linear approach would have worked better for me. I also did not like the murder’s narration, which was generally at the beginning of several of the 1953 chapters; I found it distracting and not particularly creative. I have noticed a tendency with Bohjalian, too, more recently to focus on the physical horrors within a story to the point that he is beginning to become too graphic and much less subtle than he has been over the years. Reading this book would make me a little more hesitant to read his next one as a result. So, I can’t really recommend it and feel badly that I can’t. I am hoping he returns to his more insightful self-discovery stories and style, which he could still pursue with historical based novels, if those are his choice. I’m hoping this book was more of an experiment to see what his readers would tolerate and/or enjoy.