Monday, February 20, 2012

Restoration by Olaf Olafsson

Raised within a cosseted circle of British ex-pats in Florence, Alice shocked her family and friends when she married Claudio. Despite the protests of both families, they found a crumbling villa on a windy Tuscan hilltop, called San Martino, and they poured themselves into the house and the land–and what they built together bound them together. They had a son. They finished the house. They were happy.

But away from her family and the ease of life to which she was accustomed, Alice begins to slip into a vast and encompassing loneliness. She stumbles into an ill-advised affair with a childhood sweetheart that increasingly takes her away from San Martino and into the social swirl of wartime Rome. She is with her lover when her young son dies from meningitis…and her unbearable sorrow is compounded by terrible guilt. Her indiscretion is noticed by a careful pair of eyes–those of Robert Marshall, the master restorer and dealer of renaissance art. In exchange for his silence, he demands Alice hide a priceless Caravaggio at San Martino, a national treasure that he has sold to the Germans. Neither knows, however, that the Caravaggio is, in fact, a fake, painted by Marshall’s assistant as revenge for Marshall’s scorning her as a lover and returning to his pregnant wife. Kristin had merely hoped to privately humiliate Marshall. But his sale of the forgery has placed him in far great danger than she anticipated. Compelled to make things right, she travels to San Martino in an attempt to destroy the painting. Meanwhile, inconsolable at the death of his son and at his wife’s betrayal, Claudio retreats first into silence, and then into an actual absence. He has left, without saying good-bye, without offering the grieving Alice a chance to redeem herself for her ghastly sin. As WWII moves towards its inexorable conclusion, as the front lines sweeps closer and closer to San Martino, Alice and Kristin not only have to confront the onslaught of soldiers and the destruction of everything they hold dear, but also the consequences of their past mistakes.

This book took me by surprise. I really did not expect something so deep and moving, something so well written. I’d actually been reluctant to pick it up, because I thought it would be one of those books focused solely on World War II, but I’m so glad I did end up giving it a chance.

There are two interconnecting plot lines: Kristin’s and Alice’s. The book goes back and forth in time (think The Englishation Patient, not Time Traveler’s Wife) in such a masterful way that the reader is never confused. On the contrary, it’s hard to put the book down once you get past the first chapter. The war is always second stage to the relationships in the book, whether husband between a husband and wife or between two lovers. This is a collection of relationships.

The writing is superb, stark and powerful. Once in a while the dialogue felt a bit stilted, but not enough to frustrate the reader. The way it ends, which I will not reveal, of course, is perfect, tucking in all the loose ends and leaving the reader with a sense of peace.

This is a book I highly recommend to lovers of literary fiction. Beautiful book.

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