2013 · 3 stars · historical fiction · mystery

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian (website | twitter)
Pub. Date: July 9, 2013
Source: e-ARC via netgalley
Summary: 1943: Tucked away in the idyllic hills south of Florence, the Rosatis, an Italian family of noble lineage, believe that the walls of their ancient villa will keep them safe from the war raging across Europe. Eighteen-year-old Cristina spends her days swimming in the pool, playing with her young niece and nephew, and wandering aimlessly amid the estate’s gardens and olive groves. But when two soldiers, a German and an Italian, arrive at the villa asking to see an ancient Etruscan burial site, the Rosatis’ bucolic tranquility is shattered. A young German lieutenant begins to court Cristina, the Nazis descend upon the estate demanding hospitality, and what was once their sanctuary becomes their prison.

1955: Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence police department, has her own demons. A beautiful woman, Serafina carefully hides her scars along with her haunting memories of the war. But when she is assigned to a gruesome new case—a serial killer targeting the Rosatis, murdering the remnants of the family one-by-one in cold blood—Serafina finds herself digging into a past that involves both the victims and her own tragic history.
Genre: Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery

Part historical fiction, part mystery, The Light in the Ruins depicts a scene rarely seen in WWII-era novels: the Italian countryside. Cristina Rosati and her family live on a sprawling estate – Villa Chimera – and entertain passing German soldiers.

As the war drags on and the tides turn, however, the villa no longer resembles and eden. The Germans show no hesitations in pillaging what they can, be it food or valuables. Eventually the entire family is forced to live in the nursery and eat what little scraps they can pull together.

A decade later Italy is still in the process of picking up the pieces and moving on. Serafina was scarred – both physically and emotionally – in the war and a case she’s called to investigate brings her closer to her past than she’d like. Someone brutally murdered a Rosati woman and left her heart on her vanity. Slowly, Rosatis are killed one-by-one, each time the heart is gruesomely cut out and put on display. With Cristina’s help Serafina is determined to solve the case and save what few Rosatis remain, while Cristina hopes to find closure over a lost love.

The Light in the Ruins is a novel that should appeal to me: I’m a HUGE fan of dual narratives and World War II. This novel features both and the horrific murders only add to the interest. Unfortunately, although the story was good, the pacing was slow – and while I tend to love easy-going, windy plots, this book chugged along at such a sluggish pace I couldn’t retain focus.

The novel’s moments of genius were marvelous and an absolute delight. Every few chapters there would be a one-page scene from the killer’s perspective that would detail the murder. These tiny glimpses were so wonderfully written I got chills every time. I also really enjoyed the slow-building, almost forbidden romance between Cristina and a young German officer. Ten years later she’s still clinging to a shred of hope that he’s still alive somewhere.

As I previously stated, I’m really into dual narratives and The Light in the Ruins executed this flawlessly. Not only could I get a feel for each woman, but it was fascinating seeing the effects of the war – both during and after. The war took many members of the Rosati family, including two children, and when their death was finally described (as opposed to the brief mentions of it in earlier chapters) I had to walk away. Mr. Bohjalian has a way with words and he’s not afraid to get dirty. I don’t consider myself a squeamish person – and certainly not a squeamish reader! – but more than a few scenes caused me to set the book down for a few moments.

The Light in the Ruins had so much going for it, but the crawling pace simply couldn’t hold my attention for long periods of time. This relatively short novel – barely 300 pages – took nearly ten days to read and felt much longer. The good was top-notch and that alone is enough for me to visit some of Bohjalian’s earlier works.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

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