Friends. Lovers. Rivals. Enemies. The ties that bind all four are strong but malleable, especially in wartime. This fact is at the heart of Eternal, a story of three young people who find themselves in three very different positions as the Nazis and Fascism storm across Europe.
Elisabetta, Marco, and Sandro are known as the tre amico (three friends) or three musketeers in their community. They have been close since they first began school but on the cusp of adulthood, they find things changing. The fiery, intelligent Elisabetta – who dreams of becoming a novelist – has developed a crush on Marco, the handsomest, funniest boy in class and she has just decided she will let Marco be her first kiss when Sandro does the unexpected. A sweet, thoughtful and brilliant Jewish mathematics prodigy, Sandro joins Elisabetta as she lounges in the spring sunshine in the park, bringing her a savory snack and then dropping a quick kiss upon her lips. Elisabetta enjoys the kiss far more than she would have expected to and is just realizing that Sandro might in fact be a better match for her when Marco rides up on his bike and the moment is gone.
Unbeknownst to Elisabetta or Sandro, Marco also has a crush on Elisabetta but all three are young, inexperienced and quickly become too engrossed in the turbulence of their lives to do anything about their feelings other than think of each other longingly. That moment in the park had been at school’s end and summer doesn’t give them much chance to see each other. Sweet, loving Elisabetta is forced to set aside her dreams as she is caught up in the family fallout when her mother abandons their small household. Elisabetta is forced to wait tables in order to make ends meet and to care for her alcoholic, ailing father. Marco, whose tavern owner sire was once an award-winning bicyclist, finds himself forced to train long hours on his bike once his dad determines he has the skills needed to start winning races. What little free time Marco has cannot be spent with Sandro or Elisabetta but is devoted to his new job as an aide to a local fascist leader, also done to please his papa.
Sandro is awarded the chance to work with a brilliant mathematics professor at the university and for the first time in his life, encounters anti-Semitism. Italian fascism had never contained this element; indeed, Sandro’s own family are fascists and fans of Mussolini, but as Hitler increases his influence over the world, it seems that Italy may also fall prey to the racism that is slowly eroding societies across Europe.
Fall brings yet darker developments into these young lives as the whiffs of danger that were first felt in the warm days of summer turn into a fearsome and ominous reality, especially for young Sandro. The friendship between the three will soon face its greatest test and hearts will be broken, lives lost as they are all swept up in the horrific events of this tumultuous era.
Easily the best part of this novel is the historical look at Italian Fascism and the role it played in the lives of the common folk, especially the Jewish community in Italy. For many, the politics centered on national pride of a historically great nation, pulling the government away from the elites and dispersing power to the average man, and following a charismatic leader who promised them a great future. Few realized the cruelty that was the underpinning of this belief system. When Fascism changes under the influence of Nazism, it is far too late for those involved in the movement to do anything about it; they’ve gone from being members of a group to being prisoners within it. The author does a good job of depicting the effect this had on the Jewish community, showing how they went from protected members of the party to being stripped of citizenship within a country they had lived in for centuries and the ultimate fall as they became prey to the German’s Final Solution.
The author also depicts the effects of the Nazi occupation well, showing how the erstwhile allies became Italy’s oppressors and how it impinged on the lives not just of the Jewish citizens of Rome but all Italians. I especially appreciated the look at the role the Catholic church played in both speaking against the abuses of the Nazis and attempting to aid those caught up in them. The brief discussion of Hugh O’Flaherty – The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican – served as a nice backdrop to the resistance work featured in the story.
That said, the book did have a couple of problems. It’s a long novel, told from at least six different points of view, which made it difficult to bond with any of the leads. The bulk of the tale takes place over the highly turbulent war years, which causes the narrative to be action-filled, which pulls attention away from character and relationship building. The interactions tend to be event-driven and the fervency of each encounter is falsely inflated by the violence and turmoil surrounding them. Finally, I was surprised to see this book listed as Historical Fiction/Women’s Sagas/Literary Sagas as it reads very much like a YA novel. This is partly due to how young the protagonists are, but it is due even more to how young they act. I experienced several eye- rolling moments where I couldn’t help but indulgently think, ‘Only when you’re eighteen would that sound like a good idea.’ A positive to this is that the juxtaposition of the youth of the principals and the horrors they face emphasizes the terrible nature of the war and the evil of the Fascists/Nazis running Italy. The difficulty is that it means spending hundreds of pages with Elisabetta angsting over whether to pick Sandro or Marco and then having various events upset and overturn her relationship with whomever she did pick, causing the angst to start all over again. Due to their ages, the characters aren’t just figuring out their love lives but who they ultimately want to be and how to become that person while essentially living life at gunpoint. It’s a conundrum for both the characters and writer, and sometimes Ms. Scottoline cut corners in her storytelling to move them from where they were to where she wanted them to be without explaining to us how they got there. For example, at one point, a love scene takes place with what felt to me like absolutely zero prelude or foreplay. That encounter has a serious impact on the storyline, but it doesn’t feel like a natural extension of the narrative; rather it feels like authorial manipulation to achieve a desired end.
Eternal is an interesting addition to the volumes of stories being published about the WWII period, and it shines best when it looks at the unique history of the Italian people in that conflict. While it isn’t the strongest book set in that era I’ve read this year, it’s still an enjoyable read and as a result, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about that time period.