Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: The Light in the Ruins

The Light in the Ruins
By Chris Bohjalian
Published: July 9, 2013

From the New York Times bestselling author of Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls comes a spellbinding novel of love, despair, and revenge—set in war-ravaged Tuscany.

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.

Set against an exquisitely rendered Italian countryside, The Light in the Ruins unveils a breathtaking story of moral paradox, human frailty, and the mysterious ways of the heart.

My review:

I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up this book. I was intrigued by the setting and the idea of a serial killer. When I started reading, my attention was grabbed from the beginning with the killer contemplating the murder of his first victim.

The Light in the Ruins is far more than a murder mystery however. It is also a look at two different women who have suffered so much, how their lives are connected, and the decisions that brought a serial killer into their midst.

Cristina Rosati comes from a privileged family and she has lived a relatively sheltered life when the Nazis arrive at her villa. The Rosatis have managed to avoid a lot of the privations suffered by the people around them and resentment grows when it appears that Cristina's father befriends the Germans and Cristina herself begins a romantic relationship with a German soldier. Cristina's brother Marco is in the Italian army fighting alongside the Nazis and her brother Vittorio grudgingly works with them at the museum. War begins to affect the Rosatis more and more.

Serafina was also a young woman during the war but unlike Cristina, she was a resistance fighter and she has the scars to prove it. In a way Serafina seems a much more vibrant character than Cristina. She hides a lot beneath the surface. She appears to be tough and she has to be as a woman doing what is still considered a man's job but underneath, she is still struggling with the past.

I enjoyed the history and the parts set during the war but I also liked the sections of the story set in the 50s with Serafina investigating the murders. It isn't often that I find dual story lines equally compelling and as an added plus, I didn't figure out who the killer was. While the murder mystery drives the action of the plot, the book also explores some difficult questions about ethics and choices we make as well as the way that the past continues to affect us. It asks readers to consider the idea that sometimes there are gray areas, especially in war. 

I've read The Buffalo Soldier (the only other book I've read by Bohjalian) but this book is nothing like that one except in terms of quality. The author combines historical detail with suspense and complex characters. I think The Light in the Ruins would appeal to readers who appreciate mysteries as well as historical fiction. It would make a good choice for book discussion groups as well. 

Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher


  1. I've actually never heard of this book, so thank you for putting it on my radar. I love historical fiction and it seems the mystery in this story is pretty captivating. I love the time period of the 50s and the setting of Italy, so I will have to keep my eye out for this book! Great review!

  2. I like hearing that both narratives are compelling-I've read before how you might prefer one narrative to the other so to see that they were both strong here is a good sign for me. I know my friend is a huge Bohjalian fan so I'm definitely going to bump this up my to-read list.

  3. I have seen such wonderful things about The Light In Ruins. I have not read anything by this author, but plan to make it my first. Lovely review.
    -Dilettantish Reader

  4. I am currently reading Trans Sister Radio by him, my first and enjoying it. I love the idea of two stories especially one being mystery. Thanks for the review.


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