Brought to you by OBS reviewer Daniele
Set against the rich backdrop of World War II Italy, The Garden of Letters captures the hope, suspense, and romance of an uncertain era, in an epic intertwining story of first love, great tragedy, and spectacular bravery.
Portofino, Italy, 1943. A young woman steps off a boat in a scenic coastal village. Although she knows how to disappear in a crowd, Elodie is too terrified to slip by the German officers while carrying her poorly forged identity papers. She is frozen until a man she’s never met before claims to know her. In desperate need of shelter, Elodie follows him back to his home on the cliffs of Portofino.
Only months before, Elodie Bertolotti was a cello prodigy in Verona, unconcerned with world events. But when Mussolini’s Fascist regime strikes her family, Elodie is drawn into the burgeoning resistance movement by Luca, a young and impassioned bookseller. As the occupation looms, she discovers that her unique musical talents, and her courage, have the power to save lives.
In Portofino, young doctor Angelo Rosselli gives the frightened and exhausted girl sanctuary. He is a man with painful secrets of his own, haunted by guilt and remorse. But Elodie’s arrival has the power to awaken a sense of hope that Angelo thought was lost to him forever. (Goodreads)
The Garden of Letters offers a fresh look at World War II from the Italian perspective. Elodie is a gifted student of the cello and is living an insulated life oblivious to the rising tensions around her. Her father makes the mistake of defying the Fascists and is severely beaten for his efforts. This serves as a catalyst for Elodie to join the resistance. Her best friend encourages her to attend a secret meeting, and Elodie soon becomes a messenger for the underground movement. Her photographic memory allows her to travel from place to place without any incriminating messages committed to paper, and her cello serves as a cover for her movements. Best of all, she is able to imbed code in her playing that only the recipient of the messages can decipher. The underground meetings are held in the back room of Luca’s bookstore. A romance quickly develops between Luca and Elodie. When Elodie misses delivering one of her coded messages and the German’s invade Italy, she, her mother, and the resistance must flee their city. After things go horribly wrong, Elodie finds herself alone with forged identification papers, a stranger in a strange city, in the coastal town of Portofino.
Antonio, Portofino’s only doctor, sees Elodie at the docks when she arrives and saves her from certain discovery by claiming that she is his cousin and he has been waiting and looking for her. It is a narrow escape for Elodie, and she agrees to go home with Antonio mostly because she has nowhere else to turn. When she asks Antonio why he lied for her, he explains that he routinely goes to the docks to help how he can. He chooses who to help by finding the person who looks most terrified. Antonio is a caring, gentle man who has experienced more than his share of heartache. While he was in Ethiopia serving as an army surgeon, his wife and unborn child died. He is weighed down by grief and guilt, feeling that if he had not been away he would have been able to save them both. Slowly, Elodie and Antonio come to trust each other and, coming to terms with their pasts, they hope to rebuild their lives.
The Garden of Letters is a beautifully written novel, and Ms. Richman does a great job of painting a picture of Italy. The story is full of everything that war encompasses – the heroism and sacrifice of everyday people and the heartbreaking loss of family and friends, possessions, and identity. It is told in small chapters from various characters’ viewpoints out of chronological order. The constantly changing time and perspective really compels the reader to keep reading. The characters are well developed, even though we learn about them bit by bit, and I shared their loss as they were separated from each other or perished. As expected, a book focusing on World War II is not the happiest of reads, but the sense of hopefulness at the end of the story left me quite satisfied.
As a musician, I found the musical references interesting, and the codes imbedded in the music fascinating. Though the explanation is detailed, it is not necessary to have musical knowledge to follow the story.
I enjoyed The Garden of Letters very much and recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction with a touch of romance, especially those interested in World War II.