Rome, 1943: University student Marina Tozzi is on her way home when she finds out that her father has been killed for harboring a Jewish artist in their home. Fearful of the consequences, Marina flees to Villa I Tatti, the Florence villa of her father’s American friend Bernard Berenson and his partner Belle da Costa Greene, the famed librarian who once curated J.P. Morgan’s library.
Florence is a hotbed of activity as partisans and Germans fight for control of the city. Marina, an art expert, begins helping Bernard catalog his library as he makes the difficult trek to neutral Switzerland, helping to hide precious cultural artifacts from the Germans. Adding to the tension, their young neighbor Carlos, a partisan, seeks out Marina for both her art expertise and her charm. Marina, swept up in the romance, dreams of a life together after the war.
But when Carlos disappears, all of Marina’s assumptions about her life in Florence are thrown into doubt, and she’ll have to travel halfway around the world to unravel what really happened during the war.
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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for A Girl During the War includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Anita Abriel. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “‘Art was as necessary to my father as oxygen’” (page 32). What is/was the significance of art for Marina and her father, both with regards to their knowledge and expertise as well as their emotional connection to it? Find more examples in the book to support your answer.
2. “She thought about Bernard’s clandestine trips to Switzerland and about the envelope on Desi’s dressing table. The war was everywhere. Even the people closest to her were hiding something” (page 81). Almost every main character at this point is or was keeping some secret from Marina or someone else. What are some of the other secrets? How have they affected Marina?
3. On page 107, we see Marina remembering looking through her mother’s jewelry when Belle offers her own jewelry collection for Marina to borrow from. What are other ways that Belle assumes a maternal figure after the absence of one in Marina’s life?
4. On page 66, we read that “Marina had told Carlos she didn’t want her father’s death to have been in vain,” and on page 118, Carlos says, “‘I suppose that’s also why I joined the partisans. To my parents, I’m a failure.’” Apart from defending their country and protecting vulnerable Jewish people, what were the other, more personal emotions behind why Marina and Carlos found themselves a part of the resistance?
5. Take note of the metaphors that Marina uses to describe the war: “as if [the war] were lurking behind the silver drapes, settling itself on the table next to the soup bowls and butter plates” (page 41–42), “the war seemed to settle over her as if it were fog covering the hills, filling her chest like a terrible cold” (page 70), and “‘like the snow on the hills during the winter—it can’t last forever’” (page 124). She likens the war to an unwanted guest, a physical ailment, and a seasonal precipitation reoccurrence. What do you think this expresses about the role of the war in Marina’s life?
6. “‘None of us see exactly who we are when we look in the mirror,’” Marina tells Carlos (page 116). How does this foreshadow both of their destinies and their roles in the resistance?
7. Carlos, Marina’s neighbor and new love interest, often reminds her of her former lover, Nicolo. What are the similarities and differences between them and the role they play in Marina’s life? How did Marina’s experience with Nicolo affect her ability to trust people? Has anyone else in Marina’s life broken her trust?
8. Compare the letters from Vittorio to Marina (page 12) and Peter to Desi (page 132). What are the parallels of their experiences and those who are left to mourn their absences?
9. Discuss how Ludwig and Gerhard as Germans play unique roles in this story and the fight for Italian liberation. Can relationships ever fully transcend identity and nationality? Why or why not?
10. In chapter 3, Belle and others engage in a debate over choosing between love or beauty for the rest of your life if you had to do so. What do these two things represent in the beginning of the novel with regards to the lives of its characters? What do they represent closer to the end of the novel? Do the characters’ answers stay the same as the story progresses?
11. When first introduced, Eli is fourteen years old, towing the line between youthful innocence and adolescent awareness. How do these simultaneous identities capture the full range of emotions and experiences that the Italians and Allies feel under Nazi occupation?
12. Months after the fall of Hitler and Mussolini, Marina grieves the destruction of parts of the city she had grown to love and the hundreds of civilians who were killed in the process. Desi comforts her by saying that “‘that’s what memories are for. So that our loved ones never die’” (page 238). How do the characters use memory as a way to celebrate what they once had and reconcile what they have lost?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. “‘Our time is fleeting, while a painting brings joy for centuries’” (page 43).
“‘Can you imagine if bombs were dropped on the Vatican, the Duomo in Florence, St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice? It would be the end of two thousand years of civilization’” (page 86).
“Marina thought of the priceless artwork at the Uffizi in Florence, at Villa Borghese in Rome and the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The thought of losing them to the Germans made her stomach turn” (page 113).
A deep underlying fear for many of the characters in A Girl During the War is the seizure of precious Italian art and the destruction of revered Italian architecture by occupying German forces. Approximately eleven years after this novel was set, there was a global convention in The Hague, Netherlands, on how to protect cultural property during wartime. Research an example of cultural theft/destruction during armed conflict within the past century and explore the impact it had on civilian populations through figures, anecdotal stories, and any other useful information.
2. Whether it’s the curfew that kept them from staying out late or the rationing that prevented large dinners (page 88), we see how life after the Germans arrived was very different for Italians. Take note of the differences in life before and after the arrival of the Nazis, however big or small, as described in the novel to paint a full picture of what the German occupation was really like. See how this compares to real-life firsthand accounts from Italian survivors of World War II.
3. Italians are known for their expansive and globally revered cuisine, as depicted in A Girl During the War. Discuss how meals and food play a central role in Marina’s life, old and new. Research the cultural and historical significance of food in Italy, especially during times of political turmoil.
A Conversation with Anita Abriel
Q: What inspired you to choose Florence as a setting for A Girl During the War?
A: I visited Florence when I was young, and I was amazed to find so much history in one city. Florence has centuries-old paintings and sculptures and architecture by the most famous artists and architects in the world. Lately, I’ve thought about what would have happened if more of those things had been destroyed during World War II—what would we have been left with and how would Florence be seen by future generations? That’s when I started doing my research.
Q: How does Marina differ from your previous protagonists, Lana (from Lana’s War) and Vera and Edith (from The Light After the War)?
A: Vera and Edith were both real people (my mother and her best friend). Marina and Lana are fictional characters, but both are very much products of the time in which they live. Marina and Lana are both strong women who have experienced terrible tragedy. Marina feels younger to me than Lana. She comes of age and experiences love for the first time during the war. Those experiences together change her in many ways. They make her grow from being a girl to a woman.
Q: How much of A Girl During the War is factual and how much is fiction?
A: The characters of Marina and her father, Vittorio, Desi and her family, Carlos, and Sara and Eli are fictional, but Bernard, Belle, Gerhard, and Ludwig are all real people. Villa I Tatti is a real villa that is now owned by Harvard University. And the main event—the Germans blowing up the bridges—and Gerhard only being able to save the Ponte Vecchio are factual.
Q: After losing the only family she knew, Marina forms a new community in Florence, continuing the strong themes of interpersonal relationships that determine the destinies of your characters. What inspired the creation of this world and these characters to support Marina?
A: In Europe during the war, people had to band together—it was the only way to survive. In Northern Italy, especially after the German occupation, many Italians found comfort and food and companionship by forming small groups.
Q: As the child of Holocaust survivors, how do you approach writing non-Jewish characters who serve as allies to the vulnerable Jewish community during WWII?
A: It was difficult at first. Most of the stories I heard as a child from my parents were about Jews helping other Jews. But the more I have researched, the more I realized that many people from all nationalities—including some Germans like Gerhard and Ludwig—also helped the Jews. Humanity existed in many different quarters.
Q: How did you go about researching the partisans of Italy? Was it difficult to find accurate information about this prolific and heterogenous movement?
A: I read everything I could on the subject. It’s difficult to know if details are completely accurate since many of the partisans’ activities were clandestine by nature, but I did the best I could.
Q: What is something you want American readers to take away from stories about the Holocaust and the movements of resistance around it?
A: I want readers to know just how terrible the Holocaust was, and yet that at the same time, there was always hope, always beauty, always people ready to celebrate life. That doesn’t go away just because there is a war.
Q: Do you have a next project in mind? If so, what is it?
A: I’m still in the early stages, but soon!