Originally published August 2013
Full disclosure: I am a huge Chris Bohjalian fan. Not all stalkerish—I just think he’s the shizzle when it comes to writing very engaging, suspenseful tales.
I was a little worried when his latest, The Light in the Ruins, was released so closely on the heels of last summer’s “The Sandcastle Girls.” I love Bohjalian’s work, but so close together? Was he pulling a Patterson or Sparks? Take your time, Chris. No need to rush.
There was no need to worry.
The Light in the Ruins is another exquisitely written mystery, set in both the waning years of World War II (P.S., If you like historical fiction, Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” is also fab!) and a decade after its passing. At its core is a would-be serial killer, hell bent on destroying the Rosatis, an upper-crust family from the Italian countryside. Women figure prominently in this story, as in Bohjalian’s Sandcastle Girls—and while that tale was dependent on a father-daughter relationship, The Light in the Ruins is more about the mother-daughter dynamic.
Cristina Rosati and her mother, Beatrice, come together in Rome to deal with the brutal murder of their widowed sister- and daughter-in-law, Francesca. Once married to Marco Rosati, Francesca “sleeps” her way through her grief at the loss of her husband and children in the war, and meets a brutal end. A youngish detective, Serafina, has been assigned the case, but she clearly is still dealing with demons from her past, and carries the physical scars to prove it.
Through the back-and-forth plot line, readers are introduced to the Rosati clan living at Villa Chimera during the war, the political, physical and emotional struggles that ensue with the Nazis and Blackshirts that take over their estate and the forbidden love an 18-year-old Cristina finds with a German soldier. Ah, Friederich.
I don’t want to give the ending away—guessing the killer’s identity is always half the fun—and in this case, I didn’t guess correctly, at all. So have at it. Instead, I’ll leave you with this, as it’s a predominant theme in the book—have you ever loved someone, or something, you knew was all wrong for you? Cristina knew nothing good would ever come of her affair with a German, but years later, she still can’t shake her feelings for him. Francesca knew her one night stands only masked her grief, yet she continued. Serafina know that burning herself won’t end her physical and emotional torment, yet she couldn’t give it up. It’s easy to armchair quarterback this one, but think about it—have you ever been so committed, or addicted to a behavior or emotion that you couldn’t walk away? Food for thought with this very delectable read.