“Paris Never Leaves You” by Ellen Feldman

Genre:  Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionParis Never Leaves You
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  June 2, 2020

When did Women’s Fiction morph into Romance Fiction?  Or is it just me who feels the shift?  Traditional women’s fiction focuses on a woman’s lifetime journey. There is frequently a love interest.  A romance novel focuses entirely on a woman’s romantic relationships and usually has a happy ending. This novel has two timelines: during and post WWII.   Our heroine has a romance going on in both—just not necessary.  One love interest is understandable. The survival of her child and herself depended on it. The other feels like an add-on simply to keep romance readers happy.

During the war, the woman has an eighteen-month-old baby. She works in a tiny bookstore in occupied Paris.  In the next decade, her daughter is a young teen and she works in a NYC publishing house. Although unhappy with the feel of a romance novel, there were parts of the story that I did enjoy. As a reader, I was delighted to find myself reading a book about books. I read to learn and to be entertained simultaneously, which is why historical fiction is my favorite genre. I applaud the author’s research. I did learn something new regarding WWII German soldiers. I cannot say more for it would be a spoiler. I thought she did a good job of showing the impossible choices the mother needed to make, during the war, to keep her child alive. As well as capturing the woman’s overwhelming sense of survivor’s guilt once she was safely living in the States.

Still, I do not think that “Paris” will pose any threat to other WWII historical fiction books.  In the classic, “Sophie’s Choice,” the good versus evil smacks you in the face. In this novel, it feels colorless. There are scenes showing the horrors committed against the Jews, but the brutalities are not as pronounced.  Your jaw will not drop from shock.  Possibly this was the author’s intention since the story revolves more around the main character’s personal journey than war crimes. The character Sophie also has a romance when she is out of Nazi Germany and is living in Brooklyn, NY.  Hers is a violent relationship, which she accepts due to her posttraumatic stress from the war years. Unlike this novel, that romance enhanced Sophie’s tale.

Maybe I was expecting too much. Ellen Feldman is a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, which lead me to believe I would be reading a literary novel.  The book held my interest for the author’s moral analysis of her characters. The mother struggles with what is right and wrong in both of her love affairs.  Her male characters are also wrestling with their consciousnesses.  Feldman creates further tension with her daughter. The mother never tells her teenage daughter secrets from their past causing a rift between them.  However, I am simply not a fan of contemporary romance.  If you are, and you enjoy historical fiction this one is for you.

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“A Hundred Suns” by Karin Tanabe

Genre:  Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionA hundred suns
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

This historical fiction has moments of greatness. The story is set in Indochina during the late 1920s and the early 1930s. If you are a history buff, you will be delighted to know that this reviewer learned much about Indochina, the French Colony in Vietnam. Unlike any schoolbook, Tanabe makes you feel as if you are there with the ‘coolies’ during their long, impossibly hard workday.   The anti-colonialist roots of communism are captured in the abject poverty of the Vietnamese and the abundance of wealth and luxurious living conditions of the French who ruled and lived in Indochina. The author gave me the gift of detailed knowledge. Thanks to “Suns,” I finally have a better understanding of how the Martin Sheen character in “Apocalypse Now” could go from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam to having an elaborate dinner there, while being waited on by servants, with a wealthy French family who insist that Vietnam is their home.

The tale revolves around an American wife who marries a Frenchman who is a member of the Michelin dynasty. The famous family is a major part of the story. In real life, the Michelin brothers organized two Indochinese rubber plantations in 1925, where they operated until the end of the Vietnam War. The author does a thorough job regarding less known information about the Michelins. Surprisingly, at least for me, the family is painted as part of the wealthy imperialists who cannot understand the pain of the underprivileged. The quality of life for their workers read as horrendous.  Since I have always smiled at the image of “The Michelin Man,” I looked for proof of Tanabe’s descriptions.  I found them to be true.  On just one Michelin-owned plantation, 17,000 deaths were recorded in the 20 years between the two World Wars. “Suns” is written so the reader will sympathize with the communist Vietnamese. The author has the ability to make one question what you learned in school. I will never again read a “Michelin-Star Rated Restaurant Guide” without thinking of how their rubber and money was made.

Turns out, the novel is also written as a psychological thriller regarding the American wife. She has a history of mental illness. The author presents this as an “Or does she?” type of situation.  I didn’t mind this component of the novel at all. It did not interfere with the history.  I actually found it intriguing. My issue is that romance finds its way into the plot. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that this genre is historical fiction as well as women’s fiction, something I do not usually care for. So my disappointment is on me for not carefully looking over the genre before choosing the novel.  My only strong criticism is that Tanabe did not have endnotes. True facts make historical fiction feel authentic and give the author credibility.  However, this may be due to the fact that I read an Advanced Review Copy and the citations may come once the book is published.  Still overall, I enjoyed this novel very much and recommend it.  The entire plot revolving around the history of Vietnam during those years is powerfully written.  And the thriller part is clever.  Plus, if you enjoy women’s fiction this will be a win-win book for you.

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“Delayed Rays of A Star” by Amanda Lee Koe

Genre:  Historical FictionDelayed Rays
Publisher:  Doubleday Books
Publication Date:  July 9, 2019

Spanning the 1920s to 2003, this sprawling novel is expertly woven with characters who are powerfully alive.  Koe’s novel was inspired by a 1928 photograph taken in Berlin of then up and coming real-life actresses, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl, at a party in Berlin.marleneFor those who don’t know these film icons, Marlene Dietrich was a gender-bending.  German actress who was one of the highest-paid Hollywood stars in her day.  Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American actress to achieve international acclaim.   Leni Riefenstahl was an actress turned director of Nazi propaganda films as well as nonpolitical films.

There are two moving secondary characters in the novel.  There is a Chinese maid who was a onetime sex-trafficked prostitute.  She now takes care of an old and difficult reclusive woman who happens to be Marlene Dietrich.  And there is a gay German soldier who had worked in films before the war.  He was recruited off the battlefield to be a film crew member with Riefenstahl.  He is mourning the lover he watched die in battle. Through his character, one gets glimpses of the average young German soldier’s thoughts during the war.  Not at all different than from those they were fighting.  “Please God let me live through this war…Why am I crawling in the mud when the bigwigs that started the war are safely sitting at home?”  Both characters are written in a way that will break your heart without being saccharine.

The ambiguous novel takes on many subjects:

There is sexuality.   Marlene Dietrich’s public image included openly defying sexual norms.  She was known for her androgynous dressing fashion sense.  Dietrich was the Hollywood legend who made being queer acceptable, even downright sexy.  Men and women both drooled over her and she famously bedded both.  How she got away with this in that period of time is quite a feat.   Perhaps it was her narcissist personality traits that helped her pull it off.   Still, while America adored her, Germany was angry and disowned her.  Marlene remained Marlene until the end of her life.   The author writes a scene of her maid holding her nose while cleaning an antique Limoges pitcher the 88-year-old uses as a bedpan.  In her famous throaty voice, she hollers at the maid, “Everyone should be glad I can still pee.”  For her funeral, she requested that red and white carnations be distributed to those who attended.  A red carnation would be handed to those who slept with Dietrich and a white one to those who didn’t.  She fantasized fistfights over ‘You slept with her and I didn’t!’ These laugh out loud moments are written to perfection.  (This reviewer googled an interview with Marlene’s daughter and learned that this was indeed her mother’s funeral wish.  Her mom would have been very disappointed if she knew it wasn’t carried out).

There is racism.  Despite being born in California, and the daughter of parents who were themselves born here, Wong was only offered bad/evil woman Chinese character roles.  She was never a lead character.  The Chinese were as furious with her as the Germans were of Dietrich.  A moving scene in the book happens when she is in China for a publicity tour.   Wong is criticized by a film critic for taking stereotypical roles.  She tries to explain that as a non-white in America life can be hard.  She fiercely fought for different roles.  She desperately wanted the lead role in the film “The Good Earth.”  The movie takes place in turn-of-the-century China.  She thought she had it.  She was deep into preparation, giving ideas and costume suggestions when she received a phone call informing her that the role went to a white actress.  The reason: She was too Chinese.

There is sexism.  Leni Riefenstahl was an accomplished filmmaker, one of the first of female filmmakers of her generation.  Still, she is easy not to like.  She received financial support from Hitler but, after the fall of the Nazi regime, claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust.  Koe paints her as willfully unknowing.  Leni is written in a way that one can ‘almost’ understand where she is coming from.  Since she was a woman, no one was willing to take her seriously as a director and back her films.  She took money where she could and concentrated on her art.  Like Anna May, she was forced to take whatever she got in order to perform.  In 1993 there was a documentary made about her, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.”  Maybe, this is why she is the only one of the three who gets an entire section in her own voice.

Koe’s debut novel shows that she is a master storyteller.  Clearly, her talent comes from being a fellow of the International Writing Program of Iowa and a fiction editor of Esquire Singapore as well as the editor of the National Museum of Singapore’s film journal.  “Delayed” will appeal to a wide variety of readers:  Fans of historical fiction centering on women, film buffs, gossipy stories, and those who enjoy WWII political novels that feel like nonfiction–in other words, for fans of all genres.

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“The Confessions of Frannie Langton” by Sara Collins

Genre: Historical FictionThe Confessions
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Pub. Date:  May 21, 2019

This novel is good, unusual, but not unusually good, although it could have been.  There may be too much going on, which I will get to, but at its center is a gripping narrative about a female servant in England who was a former Jamaican slave.  In 1826, she is accused of the brutal double murder of her employer and his wife, George and Marguerite Benham.   The first half of the tale is written so well.   We meet Frannie in jail writing her life’s story.   She was born on a West Indian plantation whose master, John Langton, is a sadist.  (Spoiler: She is her master’s bastard daughter).  As a child, she was taught to read and write. She grows to be highly self-educated.

The reason for her literacy was for her to participate in and take notes on her master’s pseudoscience experiments.  Langton is studying racial differences.  He is trying to prove that blacks are not human.   He uses skulls, blood, and skin samples from dead as well as live slaves.  The author chooses to leave out, what could be barbaric descriptions.  You will read about a baby being used as a research subject.  Rather than focusing on what is being done to the infant, Collins writes about the child’s desperate mother scratching on the outside of the locked room.  Or, that Frannie knows that the woman will be sold in the near future.  Less gore can equal more horror.  In the endnotes, the author cites “Medical Experimentation and Race in the Atlantic World.”  The author’s research charges these scenes with a terrible plausibility.

During the trial of the “The Mulatta Murderess,” Frannie is asked why she didn’t just leave England.   By then, slavery was illegal in Great Britain.  Her reply is heartbreaking:  No one told her that she could.   It is this style of understated writing that packs the strongest punch.  If the author would have stayed with this theme, this could have been an unusually good story, different from other historical novels on the subject of slavery.  This is shown through Frannie’s narrative, “…no doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories…with misery and despair.  But who’d want to read one of those?…What no one will admit about anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery…And, for all their talk of men as brothers, most of them stared at me as if I had two heads.”

In the second half of the book, Frannie is a lady’s maid to a wealthy Georgian couple who live in London.  Here is where the story’s pacing becomes uneven with way too many subplots.  It is easy to become less invested in the character because the story is all over the place.   You will read about betrayal, murder, lesbian love, drug addiction, and a whorehouse devoted to spankings.  The punch is muted, but not completely gone.  It is impossible not to be swept away from a story with such concise and powerful writing.  “My intentions in writing my jailhouse musings …it’s my life, I want to assemble the pieces of it myself…For every crime, there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner. That story is the one only I can tell.” The writing’s strength is reason enough to recommend the novel.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Tubman Command” by Elizabeth Cobbs

Genre:         Historical FictionTubman
Publisher:    Skyhorse Publishing
Pub. Date:   May 21, 2019

Mini Review

The author of “The Hamilton Affair” has written another interesting historical novel, “The Tubman Command.”  In this flawlessly researched novel, one learns of the lesser known heroic deeds of the black icon Harriet Tubman AKA Moses.  Most people have heard of Tubman for engineering the Underground Railroad and smuggling fugitive slaves from the South to the North.  This novel veers away from that part of her life and instead concentrates on her lesser known missions as a spy for the Union army.  Her efforts helped turn the tide during the Civil War, which, as of May 1863, the North was losing.  Cobbs keeps the writing authentic in many ways, such as using the long-forgotten dialect of the Africans living in Hilton Head Island located in South Carolina.  This is where Tubman and her scouts locate Rebel underwater mines.   Adding to the appreciated realism, each chapter begins with an actual and often moving quote from a general, colonel, scout or slave regarding Moses’ extraordinary talents.  The author shines brightest when she brings focus to the human side of the famous woman.  The story fluctuates between Harriet’s determined dedication to freeing people from slavery and her sense of burden and loss in her personal life.  She left her first husband to pursue her own freedom and outlived her second husband.  The author allows her heroine a love affair, which she admits in the endnotes to be pure fiction. This sexual relationship may not have been needed other than as a means to reach an audience who simply want romance in their stories.  Still, Cobbs emphasizes that, although her real-life protagonist was a lonely woman, she knew she was equal, or more probably, superior to any man, black or white.

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“The Parting Glass” by Gina Marie Guadagnino

Genre:           Historical Fictionthepartingglass
Publisher:    Atria Books
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

This novel, set in the 1830s, has all the makings of great storytelling.  You will read much about Tammany Hall (the name given to the notoriously corrupt Democratic political machine that dominated New York City politics during the 19th century.  You will meet Maire O’Farrell and her twin brother Seanin.  They are from Ireland and fresh off a boat that landed them in the poverty-stricken area known as The Five Points.  You might know of the infamous Five Points from the book or the movie “Gangs of New York.”  The Points was a 19th-century neighborhood located in Lower East Manhattan that included Mulberry Street.  Back then, Mulberry Street (historically associated with Italian-American culture, where the Mafia blossomed and made the street a household name) was filled with Irish rather than Italian immigrants.  If interested, nowadays it is Chinese immigrants who walk Mulberry streets.  On the other side of town is Washington Square, which was and still is a very wealthy area.  These families hired cheap labor from the nearby tenements.  This is how the twins end up working as servants in a Washington Square home.  Mary becomes a lady’s maid to beautiful Charlotte Walden, the belle of New York City’s high society.  Seanin, when not busy becoming the leader of an Irish gang, works as a stable groom for Charlotte’s favorite horse.  Both brother and sister fall in love with the mistress of the house.   I am not giving anything away.  All of this is described in the book’s blurb.  Are you in yet?  I was.  So why was I disappointed in the novel?

You must get by now that “Parting Glass” has a strong feel of “Upstairs/Downstairs,” where “Downtown Abbey” meets the “Gangs of New York.”  For this reviewer, the tale should have been a captivating read.  There is love, tragedy, and a good dose of Mulberry St.  A neighborhood I used to live in.  The storylines didn’t feel properly linked together.  By day, Mary is prim and proper.  By night, she is getting drunk with gang members and slapped around (have no fear, Mary gives as good as she gets) in an Irish pub.  I find it far-fetched that her secret nightlife could be as well hidden from her day life as presented in the book. I also had a hard time buying that Mary’s sexuality was as accepted by all as the author writes, especially by the male gang members.  Personally, I wish that was true.  But sadly if I am not mistaken, there was not a thriving gay scene in the Lower East Side for more than a century later.  It is clear that Guadagnino did her research on the history of violence in The Five Points.  This makes it all the more confusing that she depicts a casually accepted gay woman in this setting.  I think the author was attempting to emulate Sarah Waters’ erotic thriller “The Paying Guests,” or Waters’ “Fingersmith,” a historical crime novel.  Both books are set in the Victorian era.  Both books are page-turners that include lesbian love affairs.   Guadagnino, like Waters, does a great job of writing intelligently on what in present time is known as “love is love.”  I applaud the author on this.  The uneven storylines are where I take issue.  I think a good editor could have made this book a far better read than it is.

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“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Genre:           Family Saga/Historical FictionUnsheltered
Publisher:    HarperCollins
Pub. Date:    October 16, 2018

Barbara Kingsolver is a powerhouse of a writer and one of my preferred authors.  “Poisonwood Bible” remains a favorite book of mine.  In her latest novel, she sticks with her familiar themes—environment, religion, and social issues.  The setting goes back and forth between America’s current troubles to America’s troubled past.  In the present, we meet a fictional college-educated, middle-class family who live in the real-life city of Vineland, NJ.  To their shock, a few career setbacks and an ailing parent’s medical bills have caused a downgrade in their economic status.  Kingsolver is at her best when asking “how could this have happened to us?…we did everything right.”  She makes it easy to realize that your life too could turn on a dime.  To add to the family’s woes, their centuries-old house is literally crumbling around them.  Willa, the family matriarch, has learned that their house may have once been the home to real-life Mary Treat. Treat was a self-taught naturalist and correspondent with Charles Darwin.  Willa begins to write a historical preservation grant in hopes that the grant will pay for the house renovations.

In the past, Kingsolver takes us back to when Mary Treat was a working naturalist, which was immediately post civil war.   Her reasons for this time period are clear and very clever.  The troubles for the family in current times begin when Trump announced he was running for president.  Donald Trump’s name never appears in the novel but it is clear that he is “the Bullhorn…who promises to restore the old order…the billionaire running for president who’s never lifted a finger in work…the candidate who brags that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.”   The past is my favorite part of the book since it is such a classroom experience without the homework assignments.  I was fascinated to learn that back then, Vineland was created to be a utopian community.  It was founded by nonfictional Charles Landis.   He was a Trumpian-like real estate developer who really did shoot someone in the middle of the street and get away with it.   Landis had a strong dislike for Darwin since the opinion of the times was that Darwin was threatening religious beliefs.  He did not want Darwin’s theories, or any already proven scientific facts to be taught in Vineland’s schools.  Sounds familiar right?  Trump’s (so-called) Christian anti-science moves are spelled out loud and clear.  In an interview with Kirkus Reviews, Kingsolver states, “I chose the 1870s as my alternate world because I knew it was a really difficult, polarized moment in our history…..Racial divisions, urban/rural divisions, North/South divisions—those rifts were ripped open by the Civil War.”

I left out reviewing a few very good subplots for they would be spoilers.  Between the alternating timelines, I preferred the story in the past.  The present-day timeline borders on preachy.   How we long for careers that ultimately fail to bring happiness or sometimes not even financial stability.   How spoiled we can be.  How we want and waste.  All true, but no one likes a lecture in the middle of a story no matter how much you may like the plot and the characters.  Oddly, the past felt fresh.  I enjoyed reading about young America’s growing pains.  How hard the scientific minds had to fight to be heard.   I do have a rather petty criticism on the writing.  The words “sheltered” and “unsheltered” come up repeatedly.   It felt as if Kingsolver didn’t think her audience capable of making the connections.   I don’t believe that in her book ‘Poisonwood Bible,’ (which is about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo) the title words pop up at all.  She trusted that her readers would make the connection that, like a poisonwood tree, religion too can become dangerous when mishandled.   This does not mean that I didn’t enjoy “Unsheltered,” for I very much did.  And, will not think twice about recommending the book.  As usual, Kingsolver gives her readers plenty to wonder about.  In this novel, she does an amazing job of penning an engaging story about human existence combined with a well-researched tale on past and present American politics.

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“Wunderland” by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Genre:         Historical FictionWonderland
Publisher:    Crown Publishing
Pub. Date:   April 23, 2019

Though I found “Wunderland” to be a letdown, this may be my own fault. The author, Jennifer Cody Epstein, has written for BCHBO, and The Wall Street Journal, among other prestigious journals.   Because of her credentials, maybe I was expecting something unusually good and/or different.  Or, possibly my disappointment may be because historical fiction is my favorite genre.  I may have simply read one too many WWII stories revolving around the Hitler Youth movement. Nevertheless, surprisingly, I did not feel the empathy and rage that I should have when the persecution of the German Jews began in this novel.

The story goes back and forth in time from 1933 to 1989.  In 1933, we are in Berlin and meet two preteen and then teenage female best friends.  In 1986, we are in the East Village and we meet the grown daughter of one of the Berlin friends who is estranged from her mother. The daughter has no idea who her father is and her mother is still mum on the subject.  There is some suspense as to her paternal parentage.  Could she be the daughter of a nameless Nazi?  Was her mom part of the breeding program wherein German women were impregnated to produce children of alleged Aryan purity?   Unfortunately, the writing is underwhelming, making the reader not invested in the question.  I do believe that Cody Epstein does a good job in catching the dynamics of female teenage friendships (competition for a boy’s interest) as well as mother/daughter relationships (always knowing how to push each other’s buttons).  But, this insight into relations is not enough to hold the reader’s interest long enough to care about the characters.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Eagle & Crane” by Suzanne Rindell

Genre:         Historical FictionEagle & Crane
Publisher:   Penguin Group Putnam 
Pub. Date:   July 3, 2018

On the first page of this historical fiction is an old black and white picture of a handsome young man with laughter in his eyes and a cocky grin on his face.  He is standing in front of a biplane – a small plane for two, with an open cockpit.  Over the picture, it reads, “In memory of my grandfather, Norbert.”  The image and words left me with a feeling that I would enjoy this novel, which I did.

The characters include two friendly but highly competitive male teens living on their farms in California during the 1930s to the 1940s.   Both are the sons of farmers who have been feuding for years.  One of the boys is shy despite a handsome, all American face.  The other boy is also handsome.   His face displays his Japanese American features.  This teen’s nature is much more outgoing than his friend’s, but because we are in the years prior to and during WWII, he hides his true personality, emulating humility to stay out of harm’s way.  We also meet a young teenage girl, her mother, and her con artist stepfather who makes a living by selling snake oil.   He usually gambles away what little money they have.  But, one time he is lucky and wins two biplanes.  Eventually, they all meet, and so begins the story of their traveling flying circus, known as barnstorming.    The conman gathers the crowds with their act, which consists of two biplanes, two stunt pilots, and two wing walkers.  They make their money by selling tickets to the crowds for biplane rides.  This is all illegal, but lots of fun.  In case you haven’t guessed, the boys are the wing walkers and they both fall for the girl.

The young love triangle is written sweetly. The description of farming during the depression and life during WWII is spot-on.   But, what I really enjoyed is learning how the early Japanese found their way into the United States.  This book didn’t concentrate on the Japanese railroad workers but rather on the Japanese farm workers.  I was completely ignorant that in the 1880s Japanese immigrants first came to the Pacific Northwest to farm.  They traveled throughout the States buying land.  Many became very successful farmers.   Sadly, these farmers lost everything when the war led to the internment of Japanese Americans.  Not a proud moment in our history.  I found this beautiful sad poem that I encourage you to read.  “Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942” by Sharon Olds:   https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sharon-olds/japanese-american-farmhouse-california-1942/.

There is also a mystery in this story, which I didn’t think enhanced the novel at all. Rather, the extra plot detracts from it, causing the tale to be too long.   In 1943, an FBI agent comes looking for the Japanese teen and his family.   (Eerily similar to today’s unfair treatment of immigrants coming to the US.)  While there, he witnesses a biplane crash.  The passengers are burned to death and not recognizable.  The pilot and the passenger are assumed to be the Japanese father and son.   Now, the agent’s job is to investigate the crash.  I felt as though this added plot is to ensure a bestseller.  The author would have been better off deciding to write one or the other, a mystery or a historical fiction.  But it wasn’t enough to stop me from enjoying the novel overall.

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“The Madonna of the Mountains” by Elise Valmorbida

Genre:           Historical FictionMaddonna of the Mountains
Publisher:     Random House
Pub. Date:     June 12, 2018

Whenever I give a book a five-star review, that means, for me, it is an incredible read.  I admit that when a book is on a subject I enjoy or something that I can relate to, I usually add in an extra star.  After all, this reviewer is only human.   In this book, I strongly identify with the characters’ culture.  Still, this does not take away from the vivid imagery in the superior writing.  You will feel as though you are inside the pages and everything is personally touching you.  The novel is filled with the feel of Italy, its food, its way of life and its picturesque wonders.   As well as the ugly underbelly of peasant living; the author, Elise Valmorbida, explores the moral questions on the uneven balance of power between the sexes in Italian life.

The novel derives much of its weight from its setting: War in Italy during the 1920s to the 1950s.  The main female protagonist is the epitome of an unsentimental woman doing whatever it takes to keep her family alive during hardship in unstable times.  She and her husband have lived through and survived WWI.  Now they must do it again, with four children, during WWII.  As the reader knows, at the beginning of the war, Benito Mussolini chose to ally Italy’s forces with those of Adolf Hitler.  Soon German and Italian armies were battling Allied troops on several fronts.  Italian civilians suffered on many levels. Their homes were bombed, their food sources cut off.  Then, one month after Italy surrendered to Allied forces; it declared war on Nazi Germany.   And, the Italian people were further bombed and starved and still suffering. “War is hell.” ― General William T. Sherman.

“Madonna” focuses on the female character’s role.  Women seemed the most burnt out by life because they were the most abused.  The enemy, whoever they might be at the moment, was beating and raping the females.  Their own husbands were often no better, especially in peasant life where it is the norm for men to beat their wives and children, and have affairs.  Think the movie “Zorba The Greek,” not an Italian film but so similar in the scene where the village peasants stone to death a woman who was unfaithful to her husband.   If you think this casual acceptance of violence against women can be attributed to the period, think again.  According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.”   I actually found myself comparing our Italian mother to Tina Turner and her husband Ike.  Ike once told the newspapers in 1985. “Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.”  I have read much fiction and nonfiction on violence against women, this novel explains it so well.  The reader will observe how mothers taught their daughters that they must be subservient to men.  And if they are not, they will be physically punished.  Here is another movie for you, “Divorce Italian Style.”  The film is a comedy that still screams of a patriarchal society where it is expected that husbands and fathers hit.

All in all, as a reviewer, I appreciate that the author did not portray the mother in a romantic sense.  What she did was show wartime horrors and the abuse the women endured in an epic novel.   The author’s characters are so real and so gut-wrenching that I was not surprised to learn about the possibility that this is autobiographical.  I applaud Valmorbida for such an honest description of Italy’s wonders and shames.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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