Way back in the olden days of 2020, the amazing crystalclear sent some inspired picks my way for CBR Book Exchange. Hooray! I kicked off the new year with one of their thoughtful additions to my TBR pile; I had wanted to read Storm Front for some time thanks to the lovely folks here at CBR. The other book, The Light in the Ruins, was a book with which I was unfamiliar. I was immediately excited and impressed after reading the cover copy, as I had been hungry for more stories taking place in twentieth-century Italy. The Flamethrowers grabbed my attention last year, I finally dug into Elena Ferrante’s trilogy, and I tore through Trust on Hulu.
WWII era historical fiction was my go-to genre throughout high school and my early twenties.; I have a massive soft-spot for The English Patient and Atonement is one of my all-time favorite books. Somehow, I totally missed The Light in the Ruins! I’ve been familiar with Chris Bohjalian’s writing through his work in several newspapers, but I’ve never read any of his novels. Luckily, crystalclear read my mind, delivering something that I did not know that I wanted. Thanks again, crystalclear!
Without further ado: we begin with a mystery. Someone has a vendetta against the Rosati family. The formerly grand family has fallen from their pre-war heights, but they are far from the only people struggling to find their footing in post-war Italy. The Light in the Ruins runs a split-timeline between the past of 1943 and the “present” of 1955. The youngest Rosati child, eighteen year old Cristina, is our point of view throughout most of the past. In 1943 she was living a charmed life in her family’s Tuscan villa. Her older brothers had been called away to war, but she was safe, warm, and fed at the Villa Chimera. Germans and Black Shirts were making their presence more known every day, but the fighting had yet to come to Italy. Cristina is a shell of her former self in 1955, but she is alive. She and her surviving family take the backseat to Serafina Bettini, a partisan fighter turned policewoman. Serafina is on the case: who is after the Rosati family, and what do they want?
Many things have been wanted from the Rosati family: money, food, friendship, and protection were sought from players on all sides of the war. Villa Chimera, the family’s ancestral home, houses more than just the Rosati family. An ancient Etruscan tomb hides within the olive grove, and while most of the artifacts were donated to a local museum long before the war, the possibility that more can be found draws the Nazis away from plundering museums and churches and into the dark tomb beneath the villa. The tomb holds more than just artifacts; it has been a place of great importance for the family, but in the present of 1955 it continues to draw the attention of others- Serafina Bettini included.
Who else is paying attention to the Rosatis and the tomb? Well, that’s the mystery! There are several missives strewn throughout the story “written” by the nameless and faceless force that is hell bent on revenge. The reader spends their time trying to solve this mystery alongside Serafina and Cristina alike. The pieces carefully fall into place before being wiped from the board over and over again. Motivations fly, villains rise and fall, and “aha” moments become “oh no” moments right up until the very end.
The ending- and I mean the very very end- literally the last few pages- crumbles all of the momentous work into dust. I do not recall the last time I was so disappointed by the closing moments of a book. What was a strong 4.5 plummeted fiercely to a 3 based on the ending alone. Not every end can be perfect; especially the end of a story handling decades of time, dozens of characters, and an incredibly fraught moment and place in history… but this ending left me whisper-shouting into the final pages of the book. I could not put it down until I had to. I finished it in the middle of the night after a feverish push to find the answers. The answers left me wishing that they had gone unanswered.