Do you miss the old perils of Pauline style women’s fiction? The kind of book where the heroine has two or three loves after going through hell and back? Then look no further, I have the book for you.
In 1914 a man makes a harrowing journey across the city of Florence, hiding a precious cargo in his coat. He takes the infant to the sisters of Santo Spirito. Within her blankets the nuns find a tiny silver key, a witches’ blessing which may prove the only clue to her identity.
Fifteen years later young Rosa Bellocchi must either choose the cloister or head off into the world. Knowing that she is not called to serve God as a nun, she agrees to serve as governess to a noble family in the region. It is the Marchese who hires her, citing her incredible music abilities as the reason and indicating that he wants his own daughter to be as accomplished.
Her first night at the mansion is not a success. The housekeeper clearly doesn’t wish her to be there and gives her a room in the dungeon. After telling her the room is haunted, she leaves the young girl there all night without any dinner or companionship. The next morning, driven by her hunger, Rosa heads upstairs and meets the odd cook and her assistant. The three strike up a conversation and Rosa begins to hope things won’t be completely awful in her new home when she is called to meet her new mistress.
The Marchesa is a huge disappointment. Cold and disdainful, she is accompanied by her brother who wears a Fascist uniform and speaks incessantly of Mussolini and war. The formal lunch with the family that Rosa attends contains meat, which proves highly problematic for the girl. Since she can see the origin of things the pork becomes a fat sow feeding piglets, she sees romping calves and other animals all killed in fear scattered across the table. The vision makes her ill and she is forced to leave. Apparently the family is so snobby they don’t notices one of the lesser people getting sick during dinner and Rosa’s escape isn’t even noticed.
Fortunately, her young pupil is a delight and Rosa begins to settle into her new home. This is made difficult by how odd the Marchese and Marchesa are. It is clear that numerous affairs are going on. It is also clear that the couple do not enjoy each other’s company. There are rumors that the Marchese hated his wife, and as a result the Marchesa killed his late sister, who was apparently beautiful and talented. The house is also said to be haunted by three witches, women who had done no wrong but were killed on the estate. Adding to the macabre nature of the Villa Scarfiotti are the staff, most of whom prove strange, many of whom prove dangerous. Rosa keeps her distance from them but when she finds the young nursery maid suffering from a botched abortion, she rushes to her aid. Her generosity is punished when she is accused of having helped the girl with the illegal surgery, which led to the young woman’s death. Rosa is imprisoned for crimes against the state.
I’m not going to bore you with the litany of terrors, lucky coincidences and melodrama which take place after that. Suffice it to say that Rosa’s life is an eventful one, made even more dangerous and exciting by the events going on in Italy at that time. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sympathy for the Italian people, caught between the old system where the nobility abused them and the new where the Fascists did. Being an average working man or woman trying to get ahead was apparently almost impossible, with the innocent being falsely accused and convicted without trials on a regular basis.
It is that historical backdrop which gives the book most of its substance. The plot twists and turns with the dangerous developments of the turbulent thirty-plus years we spend with Rosa. The adventures she goes through certainly make it easy to keep turning the pages but the author never really connects us with the characters. Even when I had their back stories I would feel disassociated from them. Throughout the course of these difficult times Rosa loses several people close to her but I could never work up any tears for them, even though she sobbed at each death. I had never gotten to know them so at best their woes simply added to the list of atrocities laid at the government’s/leadership’s door. We do get to know Rosa but in the end it felt more like know of her rather than being personally attached to her.
In addition to the lack of in depth characterization the author had two large problems with writing style. The first is that she tells, not shows. Because the book is so huge that meant a lot of telling. The second is that the author chose an unusual message to tell us through her novel, which was the importance of not killing animals. She does this throughout the tale, partly through Rosa’s visions which tell us of the happy animal that goes into making a boot, a belt, a coat or a meal. She also comes out and says it: There is a scene where the resistance has a lamb and Rosa insists they continue to forage for other food and not kill it for good luck, as well as for the wool it will provide them in winter. Everyone goes along with this. I found it surprising that they would since the war years were lean ones indeed for the Italian people. I can understand the author’s passion for her cause but it was so overtly done that it detracted from the tale.
This book was interesting and entertaining and certainly full of action, adventure and history. However, the poor characterization and mind numbing length of the tale left me feeling like I was reading for assignment as opposed to enjoyment. If you have really missed the huge sagas of the 80s this might work for you but otherwise I would definitely give it a miss.