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This is a novel of love, loss, betrayal, and reconciliation. It is set in Orvieto, Florence, and Milan, Italy, between the 1930s and 1960s. Asked to recount the Marcheschi family history, Fina, a history teacher, agrees but warns, “the truth never mattered.”
The novel consists of the three stories Fina tells. The first concerns Willa, her adventurous mother; the second Losine, Willa’s elegant lover; and the third, herself. These accounts become a cross-cultural family saga of the marriage of Willa, a passionate artist from Ohio, and Gabriel, her possessive Italian husband; and of Fina, a daughter who stands at the center of questions about who we are, what we can know of one another, and whether we can forgive.
Part I begins in 1935. The narrator’s mother, Willa Carver, is determined to leave stifling Erhart, Ohio, a fictional town, to become an artist in Italy. Her parents are opposed until her drawing teacher, an impecunious Italian, asks for Willa’s hand. Willis is quickly sent to Italy chaperoned by the well-connected Sra. Farnese. The two women meet Gabriele Marcheschi, a soldier from Orvieto, on the train. He eagerly courts Willa and sets their marriage date without asking her. After their wedding, Orvieto’s provincial culture presents daunting obstacles to Willa and her artistic ambitions. Willa helps Gabriele become very successful. When their youngest child dies during WWII, Willa’s love for Gabriele ceases, but she must remain with him for reasons that are later revealed.
Part II begins 1949. Michel Losine is a nattily attired Milanese jeweler, smuggler, thief, faux archaeologist, who specializes in locating those missing in WWII. He has lost his wife and son in the Holocaust and is consumed by memories and guilt. A decade earlier in Germany he evaded capture with help from Fr. Eric, a priest whom he has come to Orvieto to thank for that assistance, albeit belatedly. He encounters Willa by chance. The meeting with Fr. Eric raises questions about faith and truth for Losine, and he also receives an unwelcome warning about Willa. His subsequent affair with Willa endures until her death nearly twenty years later despite Gabriele’s ruthless vengeance.
Part III begins in 1968. Fina, the narrator in the novel, expects to marry Bruno, Gabriele’s assistant, who is widely thought to be a “catch.” When she is accepted to university in Milan, both Gabriele and Bruno try to prevent her from going. Fina prevails. Willa, now dying, reveals her relationship with Losine to Fina and begs her to return Losine’s letters. Fina rejects her mother’s request until long-hidden family secrets begin to emerge. Her bitter parking with Gabriele and Bruno’s cruel betrayal propel her on a journey that leads first to Losine and then to more revelations about a past that has imprisoned them all. A final reconciliation founded in truth enables Fina to choose a