In 1943, Sant’ Angelo, a rural town in northern Italy, is plunged into the perilous drama of World War II—the Nazis imperiously take control of the region and plunder the local farmers’ supplies, causing shortages. Meanwhile, fascist groups prowl the countryside looking to forcibly conscript young men into service. Partisan militias form to combat both incursions, ensuring that the area is engulfed in violence. As a result, a “a pall of fear had settled over the village and the surrounding countryside, and no amount of praying seemed to relieve it,” a situation poignantly depicted by the author. Luca Rossi and Elena Marchetti, both of whom hail from prominent farming families in the area, feel the squeeze of the brewing conflicts, and both have brothers who leave home to take their chances with the partisans. Luca wants to contribute to the defense of Italy somehow but is desperately needed by his family on the farm, and Elena feels the same; she’s unwilling to become a soldier, but desperate to do her part: “She was not ready to take up arms to save her country like her brother, but she wasn’t a child. She was tired of being treated as if her life was less important than her brother’s.” An aspiring art curator, she is presented with a novel opportunity to make a difference—Pasquale Rotondi, who works at the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino, is in charge of the effort to hide precious Italian art from Nazi looting, and he asks her to join him. As the Nazis grow closer to discovering the operation, he comes up with a dangerous plan to ship the hidden art, with Elena’s help, to the Vatican in Rome.
Bristow’s recreation of the political tinderbox Italy had become during the war is meticulous—her research is impeccably rigorous. For the typical Italian unencumbered by fascist ideology, the predicament was all but unbearable, a grim circumstance she brings vividly to life. She astutely explores an issue that transcends mere survival: the protection of the nation’s cultural identity. The relationship between Luca and Elena is tenderly drawn; despite the distance that separates them—he is a homebound farmer and she a worldly aesthete—they seem uniquely suitable for each other. However, the prose, always lucid and sometimes dramatically powerful, too often indulges shopworn cliches and facile sentimentality. The book’s conclusion, in particular, is so cloyingly lachrymose it feels baldly manipulative. The reader is constantly lectured on the great importance of art, and often compelled to take in impassioned (if platitudinous) sermons about its value. Consider this proselytizing speech by Paolo, Luca’s father: “Without art, we are just like animals, struggling to survive each day. The churches would just be buildings without the altarpieces that reflect the glory of God. We all need to be inspired.” This banally formulaic defense of art, which runs throughout the entire novel, undermines the book’s literary appeal.