The Light in the Ruins

By Chris Bohjalian

(Doubleday, $26.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Chris Bohjalian, a Vermont-based, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, has spoken in Connecticut several times in recent years about his books, which range from historical novels to contemporary examinations of family and relationships. His first best-seller was “Midwives,” an Oprah’s Book Club selection that became a film, and his 16 books include the New York Times bestsellers “The Sandcastle Girls,” inspired by his Armenian ancestors’ lives, “Skeletons at the Feast,” set in Germany as World War II grinds to a close and  “The Double Bind,” which played off F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Bohjalian is fascinated by Fitzgerald’s work and owns more than 42 different editions of books by or about Fitzgerald.

A graduate of Amherst College, he also is the longtime “Idyll Banter” columnist for the Burlington Free Press and has written for Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

What is this book about?

“The Light in the Ruins” is both a historical novel with romantic overtones and a murder mystery, and it is set in Tuscany during World War II and in the mid-1950s. During the war, the Rosatis, a noble family, keep to their ancient estate that holds an Etruscan burial ground, but their wish to avoid the war and its consequences ends when Nazi soldiers demand sanctuary there and one of them begins a romance with teenage Cristina. Some 20 years later, Serafina Bettini, a police inspector in Florence who was a partisan fighter for the Allies during the war, begins investigating deaths that soon reveal a serial killer is targeting remaining members of the Rosati family, perhaps under the mistaken impression that they willingly collaborated with the Germans. What Serafina discovers uncovers twists and turmoil in the past lives of the Rosatis and her own personal history.

Why you’ll like it:

Bohjalian is a born storyteller with a knack for interweaving carefully researched historical detail with compelling fictional stories. His characters serve as representatives of the past in this novel, as in so many of his books, but also are fully rounded people who stand on their own and capture the reader’s interest. Bohjalian has had quite a string of hits in recent years – “The Double Bind,” “The Night Strangers,” Secrets of Eden”, “Skeletons at the Feast” and “The Sandcastle Girls” among them, and “Light in the Ruins” is yet another in this list of literary as well as popular successes.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “An exploration of post-WWII Italy doubles as a murder mystery in this well-crafted novel from Bohjalian. In 1952 Florence, Francesca Rosati, a dress-shop worker, is brutally murdered by a killer who carves out her heart, and Detective Serafina Bettini is assigned to solve the homicide. She discovers Francesca had married into the once wealthy and powerful Rosati family, who owned a large estate in the same hills near Florence where Serafina fought as a partisan. The Rosatis, headed by matriarch Beatrice, hosted Nazi officers on their property during the war, breeding deep animosity among the local populace. Serafina’s belief that Francesca’s murder is linked to this lingering resentment of the family is strengthened after another Rosati is found dead. The investigation leads Serafina back to the former Rosati estate, and she learns that the family’s wartime record was more complicated than it appears. Meanwhile, in a series of short chapters, the vengeful serial killer vows to destroy the surviving Rosatis. Bohjalian tips his hand too early as to the killer’s identity, but otherwise delivers an entertaining historical whodunit.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “In post–World War II Tuscany, a serial killer targets the remnants of a noble family. In Bohjalian’s literary thriller, the ruin of the aristocratic Rosati family is triggered by Nazi interest in an Etruscan tomb on their estate, Villa Chimera. The action ricochets between the war years, when the Rosatis …were unwilling hosts to Nazis and Fascists, and 1955, when Francesca, widow of Marco [Rosati] (her children also perished during the war) is found brutally murdered. …The murderer’s grisly MO entails extracting the heart of his victim, presumably with a surgical saw. …Florentine detective Serafina Bettini, scarred by burns sustained while fighting as a partisan against the Germans, is baffled. …When [Rosati matriarch} Beatrice is murdered in the same manner …Serafina divines that the Rosatis are the killer’s targets, but why? Because they allowed Germans to extract artifacts from the tomb and artwork from their mansion during the war, and because Cristina was in love with a German lieutenant, the clan were seen as collaborators by some, but Serafina’s patchy memory eventually discloses that the Rosatis sheltered her and fellow partisans on the estate. …As Serafina struggles with her own postwar nightmares, she must learn why the killer hates the Rosatis–only then can she identify him before the next Rosati dies. A soulful why-done-it.

“In 1955 Florence, Italy, a serial killer is carefully, gruesomely killing off members of the Rosati family. Tearing out each victim’s heart and leaving it on display, the murderer has something important to say about this family of noble blood, and Det. Serafina Bettini suspects it may have something to do with their activities during World War II. …Weaving pieces back and forth through the two time periods, best-selling author Bohjalian illuminates the ruination of family, trust, and community in crisis in time of war. VERDICT Thoroughly gripping, beautiful, and astonishingly vengeful, this novel is a heartbreaker. Bohjalian’s latest turn to historical fiction is immensely rewarding,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

You can find this book now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field, Dwight, Goodwin and Mark Twain branches.

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