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Restoration: A Novel

Restoration: A Novel

3.8 9
by Olaf Olafsson

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“A tremendous talent.”
Boston Globe

Restoration is an elegantly constructed work of fiction, seamlessly moving between the past and the present.”
—Ron Rash, bestselling author of Serena

Acclaimed novelist Olaf Olafsson brings us Restoration, a sweeping story of love tested


“A tremendous talent.”
Boston Globe

Restoration is an elegantly constructed work of fiction, seamlessly moving between the past and the present.”
—Ron Rash, bestselling author of Serena

Acclaimed novelist Olaf Olafsson brings us Restoration, a sweeping story of love tested by human frailty and the terrors and tragedies of war.  Departing from the landscapes of his native Iceland—so beautifully evoked in Absolution, The Journey Home, and other previous works—Olafson sets Restoration in the gorgeous Italian hills of Tuscany during the World War Two years of the early 1940s. He captivates readers with a deeply emotional story in the vein of The English Patient by Michael Ondaajte, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and other contemporary literary classics, spinning a tale of passion, art, war, and betrayal centered around a pair of love triangles and a forged Caravaggio.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
There’s a lot going on in Olafsson’s fourth novel: it’s 1944, the Allies are advancing, the Germans retreating, and the front line is moving closer to San Martino, the Tuscan estate that English-born Alice Orsini and her Italian husband have restored. But that’s not all: Alice has a guilty conscience and a dead son; her husband has disappeared; a mysterious painting is buried on her property; and she and her staff are running an orphanage and health clinic. The arrival of an Icelandic painter and art restorer should set the stage for fireworks, but doesn’t. Despite many possibilities for drama, Olafsson’s book falls flat. Alice brings her husband up to date via her diary entries, and an omniscient narrator informs us of everything else, none of it with much flair. The prose is rooted in exposition and explanation, and clichés abound. Olafsson, an executive v-p at Time Warner, based Alice on Iris Origo, an aristocratic Englishwoman married to an Italian whose account of staving off the Germans while sheltering orphans and Allied soldiers at her Tuscan villa was published as War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944. By the time the fighting heats up and the plot strands all coalesce, the stake that readers should have in the fates of these characters just isn’t there. (Feb.)
“With a backdrop of the ravages of WWII, particularly as they affect the civilian population, Olafsson casts a keen eye on Germany’s wartime acquisition of artistic masterpieces. A beautifully written literary novel of love, betrayal, reconciliation, and art.”
Boston Globe
“An elegant meditation on the interplay among politics, aesthetics, and personal ethics. It’s also a surprisingly moving story about two women, each of whom struggles with grief and guilt as she navigates life during wartime….Gently paced [and] satisfying.”
Ron Rash
“RESTORATION is an elegantly constructed work of fiction, seamlessly moving between the past and the present, but what makes Olafsson’s novel so compelling is his empathy and compassion for Alice Orsini, a woman trying to redeem her life in a country ravaged by war.”
Shelf Awareness
“[Olaf’s] literary skills bring Restoration to life on a windy Tuscan hilltop north of Florence...[and] shows the reader the permutations of love betrayed, and the enormous losses that war will claim.”
Library Journal
Much of Olafsson's fiction (Valentines; Absolution; Walking into the Night) focuses on lives shattered by doomed love affairs, and in this beautifully realized novel of love and betrayal in Tuscany and Rome during the closing months of World War II, he maintains that focus to powerful effect. At its center are two intelligent women whose lives become tragically intertwined during the war. Alice Orsini, an affluent Englishwoman married to the son of an Italian landowner, recklessly begins an affair with a childhood friend. Kristin Jonsdottir, who shows up injured on Alice's property, is a young, impressionable art student in love with a powerful art dealer who's selling Italian masterpieces to the Nazis. Both women have knowledge of a valuable Caravaggio painting being sought by high-ranking officers in the Allied and the German armies. And both are ruined not by the war but by destructive love affairs. VERDICT Olafsson masterfully portrays the interior lives of these women, creating a richly complex portrait of love and passion at work even as his harrowing depictions of daily life in war-torn Italy add additional depth and power to the novel. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of literary and historical fiction.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
Kirkus Reviews
A soap-opera romance set against a dramatic backdrop of war, art and the hills of Tuscany, from Olafsson (Valentines, 2007, etc.), a top executive at Time Warner. "Nothing had happened yet, but she knew it was going to happen and she was sure that he knew too," reflects a pivotal character on the verge of an affair. And so it happens. At least twice. The intersecting plotlines of two different affairs--and the relationship sparked between two women of different generations and nationalities--provide the complications which this novel resolves in a manner that may not satisfy readers devoted to the genre of historical romance. The title also has multiple references. Toward the end of World War II, a young British woman from a wealthy family, living in Italy, marries an Italian landowner whom her family rejects as beneath her. While searching for a place to settle, she discovers a Tuscan villa in dire need of repair, deemed uninhabitable, and she and her husband begin to restore it. She subsequently has a baby and an affair, and soon it's her crumbling marriage that is in need of restoration. Meanwhile, a young apprentice painter from Iceland finds work restoring classic canvases from earlier centuries, which the sinister art dealer with whom she's having an affair sells to the Germans. Ultimately, both women as well as a painting of questionable origin come together at the restored Tuscan villa, which has become something of a haven for children and others escaping the war. Divided loyalties, political and marital, result in "problems [that are] trivial in the scheme of things. We can see now that the world lies in ruins." The world doesn't end, though pivotal relationships might. Though there are some quasi-literary flourishes here, the interior lives of the characters rarely rise above melodramatic cliché.

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Read an Excerpt


A Novel
By Olaf Olafsson


Copyright © 2012 Olaf Olafsson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780062065650

Chapter One

She sits on on low chair, her jewelry —pearl necklace,
bracelet, and hairpin—laid aside. There is a shaft of light
high up on the wall behind her and the brightness calls an answering
gleam from her wet hair and delicate shoulders. She is wearing
a white shift, and her skin is pale. Her lips are slightly parted, as if
she has paused on the point of speaking. She is looking away, one
cheek mostly invisible, the other in blue half-shadow. Her hands
lie in her lap. Her expression is unfathomable . . .
The picture (oil on canvas, 97.8 x 132.7 cm) is not documented
but was probably painted while Caravaggio was living
with the Colonna family after fleeing Rome following the
death of Ranuccio Tommassoni on May 29, 1606. Although
related to his picture of Mary Magdalene, this is a more mature
work. The same model, the prostitute Anna Bianchini, may
have sat for both, but this is not certain . . .
On behalf of the National Gallery, it is a pleasure and an
honor to invite you and a guest to the unveiling of this rare
work of art on June 7 at 4 P.M. in the Central Hall. Light
refreshments will be served.
From an invitation to the National Gallery
London, May 1997
Letting go of the boy's hand, she runs into a
dim shed to fetch the binoculars. The sun is at its zenith and
the air is sultry and still. When it last rained, a month ago,
at night, she woke up, climbed out of bed, and opened the
window to feel the drops on her arms. But now the leaves of the
olive tree are parched and rustle in the light wind. Otherwise
all is quiet for the first time in days: no troop movements on
the road down in the valley, no gunfire on the mountainsides.
She knows it won't last. The birds are silent in the heat but the
cicadas are singing. She hears someone calling her name from
the main villa but instead of answering, she raises the binoculars
and scans the lower part of the turnoff.
The large farm stands on a hillside, with a view of the wide
valley. Behind the villa is the central farm, the fattoria, which
includes the dairy, workshops, laundry, the olive press, and the
clinic, and next to it is a small chapel, hidden from the road by a
grove of cypress trees. She was coming from the chapel when she
decided to survey the roads; the boy had wanted to pray.
She can see no one. The sweat trickles into her eyes; she
wipes it from her forehead and tells the boy to stay in the
shade. He had just turned four when he arrived at the farm
over a month ago with a group of refugee children from Turin.
She immediately learned their names; it is her way, although
on this occasion it seemed more of an effort than usual.
The boy whimpers. She hushes him gently.
"Marchesa Orsini," he says, "I'm hungry."
Perhaps she was mistaken, but she thought she saw movement
at the bottom of the turnoff, a momentary flash of metal
or glass. Now she can see nothing, neither man nor beast. Last
week a horse came up this way to the houses, its saddle askew,
a riding boot caught in one of the stirrups, and congealed blood
staining its flanks. The farmhands washed and fed the animal,
then presented it to the partisans.
She catches sight of the young woman when she stands up.
She has been sitting behind a rock at the side of the road, but
now rises slowly, brushing the dust from her skirt. She's
over dressed in the heat and her movements are slow and feeble.
She is holding a suitcase and looks first up the slope toward the
buildings, then back over her shoulder. She seems lost.
Marchesa Alice Orsini keeps the binoculars focused on the
young woman's first steps up the slope. She notices that she is
limping but doesn't realize how weak she is until she collapses.
Instead of lying down, however, she tries at first to hold herself
up, propping both hands on the ground, before eventually
giving up.
Alice takes the boy by the hand and hurries over to the
villa. He does his best to keep up so that she won't have to
drag him along. She starts calling the farmhands before she
reaches the house -"Giorgio, Fosco, Melchiorre!"- but they
don't hear and she hastens inside, releasing the boy's hand as
they enter the cool hall. He watches her dash down the broad
passage, past the dining room and the library, until she
disappears into the kitchen at the rear.
Soon the three farmhands set off down the road with horse
and cart. Following through the binoculars, she watches them
halt beside the young woman and lift her onto the cart, placing
her suitcase beside her. They make slow progress on their
return journey since the slope is steep and the road full of potholes.
Dust rises from the horse's hooves as it scrabbles to find
its footing, and the men strain to ease the cart forward until
the horse manages to get a purchase once more.
The young woman doesn't move. She lies with eyes closed,
the dust from the road settling on her sun-burnt face. Her
mouth is half open, her lips dry. She does not resist when
the cart lurches forward; it's as if every muscle in her body is
asleep. She did not speak when the men reached her.
They take her into the clinic. She has a deep wound just
above her right ankle and both shins are scratched and swollen.
The men do not leave, merely retreat a few steps and watch
while the nurse removes the dirty dressing and washes the
wound. The young woman's mouth twitches and sweat breaks
out on her forehead but she does not open her eyes.
There are two other patients in the clinic, both men. The
Englishman is asleep, but the Italian is awake and rises up in
bed to get a better view.
"Who's that?" he asks.
The nurse doesn't answer. When he repeats the question,
one of the farmhands tells him to be quiet. He does as he's
told, lies down again, and resumes staring at the cracks in the
ceiling over his bed.
The young woman's wound, stitched by an amateur hand,
has turned septic. After a moment's indecision, the nurse
makes up her mind to remove the woman's dirty clothes and
wash her before continuing. Looking up, she says to the farmhands,
"You'll have to leave," adding, "except you, Melchiorre."
He's the youngest, not yet twenty. His comrades tease him,
saying that he has the eyes of a girl. They are large, round, and
bright blue. They say he has the hands of a girl too.
As they leave, the nurse draws a screen around the young
woman's bed. Melchiorre helps the nurse remove her clothes
and wash the slender body with a damp cloth that he rinses
in the white sink by the door. The nurse wrings out the cloth
over the sun-burnt arms, face, and neck, letting the water cool
the young woman's skin. Elsewhere her skin is so pale that it
seems almost translucent. Melchiorre gazes at the slender veins
branching like melt water beneath the snow on the mountainside
in spring, all the while averting his eyes from her genitals.
She reminds him of a statue.
Once the nurse has washed her and cleaned her wound, she
covers her with a thin sheet. The wound will need restitching
but she decides to wait until the young woman has rested. She
is feverish and needs sleep.
The nurse goes to the door, opens it, and waits. Melchiorre
is still standing by the bed, gazing at the young woman.
When the nurse coughs, he hastily crosses himself and follows
her out.
They walk side by side across the small courtyard enclosed
by the back of the main villa, the clinic, and the little chapel.
Their footsteps echo in the quietness and their shadows lean
together. From an upstairs window in the villa, Alice watches
them enter through the back door, then turns back to the
young woman's suitcase on the table. She has unpacked and
repacked it, removing clothes to be washed and replacing a
dog-eared book on art conservation and a copy of the Bible next to
a pair of shoes and a bar of soap.


Excerpted from Restoration by Olaf Olafsson Copyright © 2012 by Olaf Olafsson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Ron Rash
“RESTORATION is an elegantly constructed work of fiction, seamlessly moving between the past and the present, but what makes Olafsson’s novel so compelling is his empathy and compassion for Alice Orsini, a woman trying to redeem her life in a country ravaged by war.”

Meet the Author

Olaf Olafsson was born in Reykjavík, Iceland. He is the author of three previous novels, The Journey Home, Absolution, and Walking into the Night, and a story collection, Valentines. He is the executive vice president of Time Warner and lives in New York City with his wife and three children.

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Restoration 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Valca85 More than 1 year ago
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 English 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book kept my attention throughout, never dragged as so many books can. Highly recommend.
Eileen0518 More than 1 year ago
This book was a pleasant surprise. Liked the parallel between the two women, their love affairs, and their deep seated sadness with what they did and how their paths crossed. Story flowed effortlessly in spite of going back in time on occasion. I just had to read up on the famous artist after I finished the book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Olaf the sowman is so cute. The authors name is olaf olafson. I kniw im not on a feozn book but.... yeah. Im done here bye