Review of “The Garden of Letters” by Alyson Richman

The author’s previous book, The Lost Wife (a must-read!), took us into the World War II Nazi concentrations camps in Czechoslovakia and Germany with skill, compassion, and exceptional faithfulness to the historical record. Here the author returns to that time period, but in this book she shows us what it was like for the people in Italy.

The Garden of Letters

Background: Benito Mussolini was Prime Minister of Italy from 1922 until 1943. Head of the Fascist Party and its militia of “Blackshirts,” he was known as “Il Duce” (“The Leader”). The Blackshirts along with Mussolini’s secret police terrorized Italian citizens in their efforts to wipe out any disobedience or resistance to the dictates of the State.

In 1935, Mussolini directed the invasion of Ethiopia, resulting in Ethiopia’s subjection to Italian rule. When France and Britain refused to support his actions, he pulled out of the League of Nations and realigned Italy with Germany. He supported all Germany’s initial aggressions in the 1930’s, and in 1939, signed a  “Pact of Steel” with Hitler, committing Italy to join any war on Germany’s side. Mussolini continued to placate Hitler by enacting “racial” laws against Jews in Italy.

Italy's Duce Benito Mussolini (left) with Germany's Führer Adolf Hitler (right)

Italy’s Duce Benito Mussolini (left) with Germany’s Führer Adolf Hitler (right)

Mussolini’s support from the King of Italy finally collapsed following the July, 1943 invasion of Sicily by Allied Forces. Installed as a puppet ruler in the north of Italy by his Nazi backers, Mussolini was eventually captured by partisans and executed. 

[Where was the King all this time? King Victor Emmanuel III (King of Italy from 1900 to 1946) apparently followed his father’s advice to the effect that “Remember: to be a king, all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper, and mount a horse.” The King invited Mussolini to become Prime Minister in 1922, and failed to move against the Mussolini regime’s abuses of power.]

The Allies continued northward from Sicily, landing on mainland Italy on September 3, 1943. Five days later, King Victor Emmanuel publicly surrendered to the Allies. That same day, Hitler launched Operation Axis, the occupation of Italy. On October 13, 1943, Italy’s government declared war on its former Axis partner Germany, and joined the side of the Allies.

Plot Summary

This story is told from two points of view, that of Elodie Bertolotti, a young cello prodigy aged 20 in Verona, and Angelo Roselli, a 38-year-old doctor in Portofino. As the story begins in October, 1943, Elodie has just arrived in Portofino, where Angelo rescues Elodie from possible apprehension by the Germans checking papers at the dock.

The narrative then goes back in time – eight years prior for Angelo and six months earlier for Elodie, to show us how the two got to where they were in the beginning of the book.

Angelo had been part of the military deployment to Ethiopia. Shortly before, he had married the beautiful girl Dahlia whom he met in his final year in medical school.

Elodie and her best friend Lena joined the partisans in Verona after Elodie’s father had been brutalized by the Blackshirts. Elodie acts as a messenger, using her facility with memory as well as music to aid the resistance.

When Elodie and Angelo meet in Portofino, they both have lived through what seemed like a lifetime of fear, pain, shock, and sorrow. The light that was so bright in their lives has surrendered to darkness. They come to realize that they have each been given the key to figure out how to honor the love of those they lost, and still carry on with their lives.

Discussion: There are so many wonderful parts to this story that I don’t want to spoil, so you will have to discover them on your own. But I would be remiss not to point out the many lovely ways in which Elodie’s immersion into music informs her perspective of the world. Books also play a central role in this story. In particular, one of my favorite books in the whole world is the one that teaches Elodie and Angelo something very important about the nature of love.

Evaluation: This author is so good. She combines historical integrity with the ability to tell a wonderful story. In an afterword, she explains the true stories that became the bases for this novel, and I encourage readers to explore this touching coda to the book.

Published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a Penguin Random House Company, 2014

Rating: 4/5

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6 Responses to Review of “The Garden of Letters” by Alyson Richman

  1. Beth F says:

    bumping this one up on my list!

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a WWII book set in Italy. With music and books in the mix, this book sound like a must read.

  3. You convinced me to read The Lost Wife, which turned out to be a favorite of the year. Now I’m adding this to my list!

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    Why haven’t I read her other one? Need to check on that!

  5. sagustocox says:

    I cannot wait to read this one…

  6. I have this set aside to read on my vacation next week. Can’t wait!

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