Paperback, 336 pages
Published February 7th 2012 by EccoRaised within a cosseted circle of British ex-pats in Florence, Alice shocked her family and friends when she married Claudio. Despite the protests of both families, they found a crumbling villa on a windy Tuscan hilltop, called San Martino, and they poured themselves into the house and the land–and what they built together bound them together. They had a son. They finished the house. They were happy.
But away from her family and the ease of life to which she was accustomed, Alice begins to slip into a vast and encompassing loneliness. She stumbles into an ill-advised affair with a childhood sweetheart that increasingly takes her away from San Martino and into the social swirl of wartime Rome. She is with her lover when her young son dies from meningitis…and her unbearable sorrow is compounded by terrible guilt. Her indiscretion is noticed by a careful pair of eyes–those of Robert Marshall, the master restorer and dealer of renaissance art. In exchange for his silence, he demands Alice hide a priceless Caravaggio at San Martino, a national treasure that he has sold to the Germans. Neither knows, however, that the Caravaggio is, in fact, a fake, painted by Marshall’s assistant as revenge for Marshall’s scorning her as a lover and returning to his pregnant wife. Kristin had merely hoped to privately humiliate Marshall. But his sale of the forgery has placed him in far great danger than she anticipated.
Compelled to make things right, she travels to San Martino in an attempt to destroy the painting. Meanwhile, inconsolable at the death of his son and at his wife’s betrayal, Claudio retreats first into silence, and then into an actual absence. He has left, without saying good-bye, without offering the grieving Alice a chance to redeem herself for her ghastly sin. As WWII moves towards its inexorable conclusion, as the front lines sweeps closer and closer to San Martino, Alice and Kristin not only have to confront the onslaught of soldiers and the destruction of everything they hold dear, but also the consequences of their past mistakes.
Alice's perspective in the story is written in first person as if she were talking to her husband through her diary. Alice's character was very well fleshed out; it was easy to see how she felt guilty about her actions and longed for forgiveness. Of course, nothing will bring back her son, Giovanni, and her absence from home on the night he died will haunt her forever as will the way Claudio kept asking her, "where were you, where were you?"
Kristin, a young and very talented Icelandic art student makes her way to Rome and becomes a restorer in Marshall's studio. Her long term involvement with him leads her purposefully to Alice's door just as the war is beginning to encroach closer and closer. I did like the way Olafsson intertwined their stories into a very entertaining whole using the art as a common bond.
Olafsson's way with descriptions took me right into the heart of Italy at war. The title is an interesting choice in itself; referring to the restoration of the villa, the art work or even restoring a little peace within oneself. The premise of the book is wonderful; what's not to like about WWII stories, purloined art, broken hearts, recrimination and guilt all in a Tuscany setting?
However, my one quibble is I felt that the abrupt shifts in perspectives and time frames took away from the flow of the book. At times I wasn't too sure who was speaking or to whom. Even so, if the flow had been better, this would have been a 4 or 4.5* read but since it felt a little choppy to me, it earns a 3.5* rating.
Disclosure: A review copy of the book was provided by Ecco (an imprint of HC) in exchange for my honest opinion.