The Garden of Letters384
The Garden of Letters384
Set against the rich backdrop of World War II Italy, Garden of Letters captures the hope, suspense, and romance of an uncertain era, in an epic intertwining story of first love, great tragedy, and spectacular bravery.
Portofino, Italy, 1943. A young woman steps off a boat in a scenic coastal village. Although she knows how to disappear in a crowd, Elodie is too terrified to slip by the German officers while carrying her poorly forged identity papers. She is frozen until a man she’s never met before claims to know her. In desperate need of shelter, Elodie follows him back to his home on the cliffs of Portofino.
Only months before, Elodie Bertolotti was a cello prodigy in Verona, unconcerned with world events. But when Mussolini’s Fascist regime strikes her family, Elodie is drawn into the burgeoning resistance movement by Luca, a young and impassioned bookseller. As the occupation looms, she discovers that her unique musical talents, and her courage, have the power to save lives.
In Portofino, young doctor Angelo Rosselli gives the frightened and exhausted girl sanctuary. He is a man with painful secrets of his own, haunted by guilt and remorse. But Elodie’s arrival has the power to awaken a sense of hope and joy that Angelo thought was lost to him forever.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Her rucksack contains her life reduced to small pieces. Though their physical weight is inconsequential, everything she carries feels heavy to her. She tries to pull her skirt underneath her, but the wind coming off the bay is relentless, and the cotton billows around her like a parachute.
She closes her eyes and tries to picture herself being lifted from the deck of the boat, floating above in the cool air and looking down as the vessel moves across the water. Genoa, Rapallo, and the western coast of Italy look like a knife’s edge against the water. From the boat, she can see the pale facades of the villas nestled into the cliffs and the century-old hotels that face the sea.
She has been traveling for days, but it feels like months. With a gray scarf covering her dark hair and her navy blue dress modest and unassuming, she could be any young Italian girl in her early twenties.
Her stomach is empty. She tries to forget her hunger by scanning her fellow passengers. The boat carries close to thirty people. Seven of them are German soldiers, along with a handful of grandmothers dressed in their widow black. The others are nameless men and women who all appear unremarkable to her.
Just as she hopes she appears to them.
Early on in the war, she learned how to lose herself: to appear plain, and not worth stopping in the street. She can’t remember the last time she wore a brightly colored dress or her favorite silk blouse, the one with the white flowers. Beauty, she has come to realize, is another weapon, better packed away and revealed only when absolutely needed.
She instinctively cups her hands on her stomach as the boat approaches the dock. She is surprised to find so many Germans there, as she had believed she was finally on her way to safety. She has spent weeks trying to avoid them, yet now here they are standing at the dock, waiting to check everyone’s papers.
She feels her entire stomach turn. She takes off her rucksack and instinctively clutches it to her chest.
She stands up, her legs feeling like they may give out from underneath her. She takes her palms to her cheeks and gently presses the skin, so that the pallor of fear is replaced with color.
Afraid the soldiers might search too deeply inside her rucksack, she withdraws her forged papers and holds them to her side. She walks slowly behind one of the widows whose crucifix is so large, she hopes it might cast off a bit of protection onto her as well—or at least temporarily distract the soldiers.
She walks carefully across the deck until she finally reaches the dock. High on the hill, the white houses look like teeth. She sees bougainvillea roping over terraces and hibiscus flowers opening up like parasols to the sun. She inhales the scent of jasmine, but she is weakening from fear with every step.
“Ausweis!” The Germans are barking their orders and grabbing papers out of nervous hands.
Elodie is next in line. Her hand clasps her false papers. A few weeks before, she had destroyed the identity card that bore her real information. Elodie Bertolotti is now Anna Zorzetto.
Anna. Anna. She tries to concentrate on her new name. Her heart is pounding.
“Next! You!” One of the Germans grabs the papers in her hand, his fingers seizing them with such force that their fingers momentarily overlap. She shudders at his touch.
“Name!” the German snaps at her. His voice is so sharp, she finds herself momentarily freezing and incapable of uttering even the slightest sound.
Her mouth is now open, but she is like a muted instrument. She begins to stammer when, out of nowhere, a voice shoots through the air.
“Cousin! Cousin!” a large, barrel-chested man shouts to her from the crowd that had congregated at the dock.
“Cousin! Thank goodness you’ve come. I’ve been waiting for you for days!” The man pushes to the front of the crowd and embraces her.
“She’s with me,” he tells the German soldier.
“Well . . . take her then,” the soldier mutters as he reaches for the papers of the next person in line.
This man, whom Elodie has never seen before, squeezes her arm tightly and begins steering her through the crowd. He pushes people away so she can walk freely in his path.
He turns his head toward her and waves his hand in the direction of the hill. “This way,” he whispers. “I live above the port, deep into the cliff.”
She stands for a moment, frozen in her tracks. She can still hear the noises from the harbor: the Germans barking orders, the shouts as people try to locate each other, and the cries from tired children.
“I am not your cousin,” she finally says to him. “You must be mistaken.” She tries to speak slowly and clearly. She notices his speech is more proper than the dialect she heard on the dock. He speaks in an educated tongue. But still, Elodie wants her words to be received without confusion.
Her scarf has loosened, allowing her face to emerge from a sea of drab cloth. Like water receding to reveal a well-polished stone. Immediately, he is struck by the green of her eyes and the intensity of her gaze. He looks at her without speaking, then finally forms his words. “I know you’re not.”
“Then why? Why did you save me?”
She hears his breath, a whisper of air escaping from his chest.
“Every few months I come here and save one person.”
She looks at him, puzzled. “But why did you pick me?”
He studies her face, reaffirming what he already knows.
“Why? It’s simple. I choose the person who looks the most afraid.”
He asks if he can carry her rucksack for her. She tells him no. “I carry this myself.” He does not push her. He cannot read her quite yet. He can only smell the fear on her. To him, it’s the scent of a hunted animal. She is restless and suspicious. Her expression does not soften as they walk up the narrow streets toward his house. She focuses her eyes ahead and does not stop once to gaze at the unspoiled beauty of the village or the sea below.
He alternates from walking in front of her to moments of lagging behind. Sometimes he feels the betrayal of his own body. The swell of his stomach, the shortness of his legs, the foot injury that kept him out of this war. She is steps ahead of him, and he notices the strength of her body. The ribbon of muscle in her calves, the tightness in her hips. The firmness of her arms.
“We’re almost there,” he tells her.
She looks back at him and stares. He has seen that look—the vulnerable wanting to appear strong—countless times over the past year.
“You can trust me,” he tells her.
Again she stares at him. One of the straps of her rucksack slips off her shoulder and she readjusts it.
“What is your name?” he asks.
She is so tired that “Elodie” nearly slips from her tongue, but she catches that word before it escapes her. “Anna,” she says. “Anna Zorzetto.”
“Anna. I am a doctor. The only one here in the village. I promise, you have nothing to fear from me.”
His explanation seems to register with her, but she does not soften in the sunlight. He notices that the exact opposite happens instead, as if her body stiffens with his every word.
She tries to read him. The look in his eyes, the lines of his face that suggest both a sadness and an earnestness at the same time.
She turns her head back again, as if to look one more time at the port below. She is desperate to forget the sheer terror she felt only minutes ago, when she feared they might question her papers, or even worse, search her bag.
“Well,” she finally manages to say, “I suppose I will have to trust you. I don’t have any choice, do I?”
They walk deeper into the rocky cliffs, climbing a small, narrow path, passing over ancient stone walls that barricade a steep mountainside, before they arrive at a small archway covered in vines. Tucked within the jungle of flowers and thicket is a white house with a heavy door, the wood painted in glossy coats of green. She notices the lemon and fig trees and, again, the perfume of jasmine in the air. She feels dizzy. These are not the trees of her childhood in the north of Italy, with its crisp smell of pine and juniper berries in the air. Here she feels as though she has awakened from a dream. The dialect is foreign. The skin more weathered, the clothes less refined.
How many days has it been since she has slept deeply? The fatigue inside her is paralyzing, and she is thirsty for sleep. Everything she does seems to require an inordinate amount of energy, compounded by the strain of trying not to appear tired and vulnerable.
Inside the house, he offers her a glass of water. She drinks it down greedily and he refills the glass. And, then, one more time. He goes into the kitchen and cuts her three pieces of bread. He spoons some honey into a bowl. He removes the stem of a persimmon and quarters it with a knife before scooping out the soft flesh into a saucer.
She takes only one spoonful of the honey with the bread even though she wants more. She takes only a little of the persimmon. She does not want to reveal the nakedness of her hunger. But the third glass of water, she finishes entirely.
“You are probably tired from your journey,” he tells her. “I have a spare room, where you can get some rest.”
He walks her to a small room with white walls, painted tiles on the floor, and a window that overlooks the sea. The air billows through the translucent curtains, and the image reminds her of her skirt lifting in the ocean breeze.
“Yes, I need to sleep,” she says.
He closes the door behind him, and she waits until she hears his footsteps down the hall. She notices the key in the door and turns it, hearing the lock click. Then, knowing she is finally safe, at least for the moment, she lifts up her rucksack to the bed and unpacks it.
The contents are both what one would expect and what one would not.
She takes out the first layer. The spare blue dress, her slip, and her underclothes. Then, the sweater from Luca, which she brings to her face and inhales.
Her heart pounds as she removes the second layer. A small toiletry bag that contains her toothbrush, a bar of soap, and her comb.
She next comes to her nightgown, then the small pouch with the amulet on a leather cord, which she cups in her hands. But then on the bottom of her rucksack, she withdraws a book, so slender it could be a journal. For a moment, she pauses. She rests her hand on its well-worn cover. Then, slowly and with great reverence, she opens it. Inside this book is another folded piece of paper. But it’s not something written in a code that she doesn’t understand. Nor is she meant to deliver it as she did during her days as a messenger for the Resistance. Instead, she unfolds it to reveal a sheet of musical score.
She closes her eyes and hears the song imprinted on it.
How does one hear music? Is it the rhythm of an unspoken language? An untranslatable code?
Elodie hears the notes inside her head like the movement of water. It begins in soft ripples. She also hears the notes in color. An ink wash of pale blue, or the glimmer of white stone. Soothing at times, then escalating. Long, interconnected strokes that enter her in a wholly different channel. Not through her mind, but in the deepest cavity of her belly.
She closes her eyes and remembers her cello back in Verona. The prestigious music school where she carried her instrument every morning, in the black case nearly the same size as she.
She remembers holding the cello between her legs. Her knees two bookends against the lowest curve, one arm embracing the neck, while the other held the bow. With each stroke of her bow, her body coaxed the instrument into song.
But now, she merely takes the sheet of music to the bed and folds her hands over the top. She relaxes as the notes float through her. Sleep finally takes over her, until there is nothing but the melody of the notes inside her head.
Her parents had given her that first instrument when she was seven. For several months prior, she had gone to sleep hearing them discuss which instrument she would study. Her mother had wanted the flute, but her father had pushed for the violin. But Elodie had begged for a cello. She had first become enamored by the instrument’s beautiful sound while at a concert at her father’s school. The students had played the cello concerto, and she sat there mesmerized.
On that walk home, she pierced the air with her own imaginary bow. She still heard the music in her head, every note lingering inside her. The dance of that cellist imprinted on every fiber of muscle and piece of bone.
The day she was finally given her first cello, and the sight of her father placing the dark leather case on their dining room table, were memories that Elodie stored inside her mind, each image like a single note connected to the next. She would never forget the sight as her father unsnapped the case. The instrument had been wrapped in a beautiful red scarf to protect the bow from scratching the varnish, and when her father removed it, Elodie gasped.
“It’s a three-quarter size,” her father told her as he handed the cello for her to hold. “When you get a little older, you’ll play on a full size.”
She took the instrument from him and, immediately, Elodie felt her heart begin to race. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever held.
“And the bow, Elodie . . .” Her father took out the bow and handed that to her as well.
“She is her father’s daughter,” Orsina said, sensing that her daughter would have no problem once she learned the necessary techniques. “I can’t wait to hear her play.”
Elodie began her studies slowly, her father adamant that whatever she learned, she would learn correctly. The first thing he taught her was to caress her cello.
The ideal, he told his young daughter, was not to distort oneself. Instead, one needed to find a natural way to embrace the instrument. “You need to become one with it,” he told her.
He took her hands and placed them on the top of the shoulders of the instrument. Then, slowly, he moved Elodie’s hands alongside the cello’s edges, allowing her to feel every curve.
The sensation of the wood beneath her palms was soothing. Each part of the instrument’s construction evoked its own tactile response: the varnish of the wood, the length of the fingerboard, and the ridges within the scrolled neck.
Elodie’s father showed her how to use her knees to secure the cello’s tail into the floor to prevent slipping. He lifted her bow from the table. “A cellist holds the bow naturally, not like a violinist,” he told her. And then he laughed and did a small pantomime, mimicking the awkward way a violinist gripped his bow, the left fingers rolling slightly, a technique that was used to increase the volume.
Over the next few weeks, she learned to make notes emerge from her cello. She began to feel her arms transform. No longer did they seem like two unremarkable appendages, but a part of her that had their own unique power. Like a bird’s wings, they could lift and stretch. Her wrist, too, she learned to curl and extend, lending grace and beauty to her playing. She learned to wait. To take breaths. To hover her bow just above the bridge and then finally strike. She absorbed her father’s instructions with an understanding beyond her years.
“A good musician must cultivate the art of interpreting,” he instructed her. “The staves of the score are a road map. You read the notes, you play them as the composer dictates, but the emotion . . . that is what makes the music your own.”
She looked at him wide-eyed and rested her bow on her knee.
“You must always listen to what your teacher tells you, then interpret it . . . demonstrate that you’ve understood far beyond just the playing. Do you understand, Elodie?”
Elodie nodded. “Even though you’re young, I can tell you are gifted already by the way you sense what’s hidden beneath the music.” He walked over to her and took the bow from her hand, placing it on the music stand that was in front of her. Then, he took his daughter’s hands into his own.
“When you were only a few months old, I held you in my arms. I looked at that beautiful face of yours and saw your mother’s almond-shaped eyes, her perfect mouth. But I saw you had my hands.” He opened her palm. “You have the same long fingers, the same wide expansion.” He closed her hand again and brought the fingers up to his lips and kissed them. “You’re destined to be a great cellist, because I can sense you want to bring your cello to life.”
Just as her father anticipated, a special magic developed between Elodie and her cello. The instrument slowly became her, and she became the instrument. A unique bond that grew increasingly intense as her studies progressed. Sometimes when she held her cello, Elodie thought she could sense a pulse beating within its wooden cavity. It never occurred to her that it was her own heart she was hearing.
As she grew older, she was given a full-sized cello that her father had bought from a retired teacher at the conservatory. Made of walnut wood with a honey-colored finish, she practiced on it daily and her repertoire soon blossomed. She played the Brahms Cello Sonata in E major and the Vivaldi Sonata No. 5 with increasing emotion. She mastered the Tarantella, a piece that challenged her stamina, but she practiced it for hours until the notes were as clean and as bright as sunlight.
But just before her seventeenth birthday, only four months before her auditions to become a full-time student at Verona’s music school, her father came home with an early birthday gift.
“It’s a Venetian cello,” he told Elodie. This time when the case was opened, the cello was wrapped in an enormous yellow scarf. Her father seemed to meditate over the instrument for a brief moment, as if he were offering a small prayer. Then, with a grand gesture of his wrist, he withdrew the material to reveal his daughter’s newly gifted cello.
“It’s extraordinary!” Elodie couldn’t contain her excitement. She had thought the two cellos she had played on previously had been beautiful, but this one was truly magnificent. The instrument was unlike any cello Elodie had seen before. The varnish was not brown, but a striking red. A topaz-colored light glowed below its glossy coat, so that the cello appeared as though it possessed its own internal fire.
Elodie’s hands fidgeted. She was desperate to touch it.
“In honor of your mother, it had to be Venetian.”
Her father handed her the instrument and by instinct, Elodie began to caress it. Her hands moved across the edges and every curve, just as she had done with her first cello years before. Almost immediately, she could tell the proportion of this particular cello was slightly different. The bottom part swelled slightly, thus creating a more voluptuous shape. Even the carving of the decorative scrolls seemed wholly different. As if the luthier responsible had been motivated more by whimsy then tradition when creating its flourishes.
“Papa,” she said, still touching every part of the instrument, as though she could not quite believe her eyes. “This must have cost you a fortune!”
“Its journey into our living room is a long and complicated story,” he said softly. “But I assured the former owner that you would care for the instrument as if it were an extension of your own body.”
Her father returned to the case. He pushed aside the yards of bright yellow silk and retrieved a long, slender bow made of dark, exotic wood.
“The owner said it had to be played with this bow in order to bring out the cello’s full beauty.” As soon as her fingers took hold of it, she remarked at its lightness.
“It feels almost weightless,” she said.
She pulled herself to the edge of her chair and began to prepare the bow. She first tightened the hair, and then applied the rosin.
Her father took out his violin and gave her an A note so she could tune the instrument.
She craned her ear to her string and plucked. She closed her eyes and checked the note again. Only when she had tuned the cello to precision did Elodie begin to play.
Over the next several months, Elodie’s playing became even more inspired with her new cello. She played with such intensity, such passion, that the mere trill of her vibrato caused her listeners to sense that they were in the company of a prodigy. Now nearly seventeen, her limbs had lengthened and her body had transformed into a woman, both lean and strong. Her father often invited his friends from the Liceo Musicale to listen to his daughter play, hoping to prepare her for larger audiences in the future.
She had both an acoustical and physically charming presence. When her arms drew the bow across the bridge of her cello and then pulled backward to sustain a single, long note, Elodie looked like a dancer. Professor Moretti remarked one evening that she resembled a swan, one capable of gliding across even the most difficult channel of music.
Every afternoon after school, Elodie opened up the case and pulled out her cello. “It doesn’t sing until it’s in your hands,” her mother said one day, as Elodie began to play. She watched as her daughter rested her temple against the cello’s long, brown neck. The amber waves of the instrument’s varnish rippled in the sunlight, and the long shadow of the instrument’s body stretched across the apartment’s floor.
Orsina waited all day to hear her daughter play. It was like a thirst inside her. Her daughter’s music brought beauty into her life. She still marveled that the child she created from her own womb had such a capacity to awaken things inside her. She had listened patiently as the girl first learned her scales, then graduated to arpeggios and more difficult études. Now she was playing full sonatas and concerti. Her daughter was on the cusp of adulthood, and Elodie’s playing became more nuanced and a certain sensuality infused her music. Her fingers now moved with confidence, a nimble precision as they danced up and down the strings. Her bow alternated from long, ribbonlike strokes to gentle caresses.
Elodie grew her hair past her shoulders, and occasionally, when she was fully engaged in the drama of her playing, her hairpins would come undone and her face would become hidden in a curtain of hair. But when her hair was pinned high and in place, she was a striking presence. She had her mother’s china-white skin and Venetian green eyes. And when she performed, she appeared celestial.
“She is not only a gifted player,” her father told her mother. “She also has a rarer gift in that she can hold the notes inside her head.”
Her mother didn’t seem to understand at first. “What do you mean, Pietro?”
“What I mean is that she has an extraordinary ability to memorize the musical score.” He shook his head. “She doesn’t get that from me, Orsina.”
Elodie’s memory was something her mother had noticed quite early on. The girl rarely ever needed to write anything down. She could also remember with great clarity what she had been wearing on a particular day, even several years after. She could read a book once and remember with ease its entire content without having to refer back to a single page.
“It’s the Venetian in her,” Orsina said. She knew that her daughter’s memory came from her bloodline. Venetians had spent centuries navigating a floating city of mazes. One needed to remember pathways, landmarks, or even anecdotes of particular places in order to find one’s way.
Orsina couldn’t remember things that were written down like Elodie but she did have a strong visual memory, which she knew she had passed to her daughter. When the child was just four, she had directed Orsina home, telling her to turn left at the grocer, right at the park, and straight on the road with the gelato store in the front. She had smiled, knowing her daughter gave directions like her own mother had, and hers before her.
But Elodie’s memory was even more astonishing than a typical Venetian’s, and Orsina was happy that it would serve her daughter well in her music.
“This will set her apart from her peers,” Pietro told his wife. “She’ll be the one the professors want for their string quartets or for piano duets. It looks very impressive not to need to have the music in front of you when performing.”
From the time she is ten years old, Elodie attends classes after school at Verona’s Liceo Musicale,on the corner of Via Roma and Via Manin. By eighteen, however, she studies there full-time. Her lithe frame carries her cello case to the school’s cloistered walls. Everything around her cast an impression. The blue-gray plaster walls, the stark practice rooms. The smell of dry leaves meeting moist air.
Her memory is like soft, red clay. A face on the street. The pattern of a dress. All that she encounters remains fixed inside her mind, like a web of permanent fingerprints.
She plays Vivaldi, Albinoni, Beethoven, Bach, and , the music flowing through her, her body soaking up each note. Her body is just another part of her instrument. Her legs are strong like a colt’s; her lean arms have the quiet strength of a dancer.
When she plays, she closes her eyes. She hears the fire. She senses the water. Her bow is like lightning. Striking. Flashing. Touching down sometimes for just an instant, and other times moving back and forth like a saw. She does not play with any sense of fear.
Outside, the world is blackening with the encroaching war. She senses it like a shadow as soon as she leaves the classrooms at the Liceo or her home. The women in line for food at the grocery store, their hands clutching ration cards; the striking factory workers protesting on the streets. The black, billowing shirts of the Fascist police on their motorcycles. The fear that doesn’t hang in a single note, but rather an intricate orchestration that is impossible for Elodie to decipher.
She is chosen to play in an advanced string quartet with three other students. Lena, a violist, is chosen as well. The majority of girls attending the Liceo Musicale play the piano or the flute. But Elodie and Lena are among the few girls who play the strings.
The two girls are opposites. Elodie, with her dark black hair, her sinewy body, and her green eyes. Her friend Lena looks more German. Her body is soft and curved. Her hair blonde, her eyes blue and round. There is a voluptuousness to the way she plays her viola as well.
They quickly become friends and learn to complement each other’s playing. Lena laughs more easily and takes Elodie to the cafés to have espresso after class. She does not have Elodie’s memory, though. Lena is like the two boys in the quartet as she needs to read the musical score. But on several occasions, her beauty is responsible for distracting their classmates.
“Franco was trying to look down your blouse today in rehearsal,” Elodie teases. “It’s a small marvel he didn’t lose his place . . .”
“He’s an imbecile.” Lena snorts. “He wouldn’t be able to open my bra even if he had three hands.”
Elodie is amazed by her friend’s quick tongue. It’s such a contrast to Lena’s angelic looks and the mask of demureness she wears through the halls.
Lena is critical, too, of Mussolini’s alliance with the Germans. “Those swine,” she calls the Germans. “The lowest from the gutter. You just wait and see . . . if we’re not vigilant, we’ll be like Czechoslovakia and they’ll be steamrolling in here and ruling our country.”
Elodie can feel the weight of eyes on them as her friend blurts out her feelings.
“You shouldn’t speak so loudly . . .” she whispers. “You’ll get us dragged into the police station with talk like that.”
“What are you afraid of? The police don’t see us as a threat. You’re just a girl with a cello on the street. They’re too stupid to even notice us.”
Elodie looks around. What Lena said is true. The piazza is lined with women pushing baby strollers and a few men walking toward the post office. They are just two young girls carrying instruments, and easily blended into the scenery. No one takes notice of them at all.
As a child, Elodie fell asleep with music in her head. In the morning, she would wake and hear it, too. “Sleeping with the angels,” is what her father called it when your dreams were accompanied by song. But Elodie couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t hear notes while she slept. Her father played long into the night, when he thought the house was already asleep. Softly and quietly, he played a nocturne, or occasionally a quiet romance.
He always stood near the tall paned windows that overlooked the street, his white shirt slightly unbuttoned, his violin tucked expertly underneath his chin.
His playing was the lullaby of her childhood. She knew when he played Mozart that he was savoring good news, when he was nervous, he played Brahms; and when he wanted forgiveness from her mother, he played . She knew her father more clearly through his music than she did through his words.
Like her, he spoke very little. It wasn’t that he didn’t have thoughts or feelings. If anything, he had too many of them. He didn’t have a quiet head. He felt things too deeply. Music had become a tonic for him early on in his youth, and he had learned to play three instruments expertly: violin, cello, and piano.
Elodie’s mother, Orsina, was not a musician herself, but had fallen in love after hearing him perform.
He had been invited to play in her native city, a labyrinth on water. A place where in winter, the fog merged with the sea. Orsina’s father knew the feather of every bird and made a living from all things ornithological. He traveled three months a year to places as far away as Africa to collect rare plumage for his hat store, a jewel box known to the city’s most fashionable at the corner of San Marco’s Square. Ostrich, peacock, and yellow and blue parrot, every journey brought home a trunk full of feathers, each one more exotic than the last.
Orsina couldn’t forget the sight of her mother’s beautiful bed, laid out in feathers. Silky plumes layered in abundance; a feather coat of turquoise, lapis, and green. It was her mother who took her father’s extravagant bounty and transformed them into the beautiful hats that filled the windows of their store. Her narrow, tapered fingers were so delicate and nimble as they sewed dozens of seed pearls, silk corsages, and thin wisps of veil. Orsina learned the styles early from her mother: cloche for the ladies and the English tourists, broad-rimmed for church and weddings, and the flapper headbands with beads and white feathers for those who liked to dance. In her mother’s workroom, there were always tall stacks of fashion magazines her father had sent from Paris so that his wife could be kept abreast of the latest styles. Orsina spent her days leafing through the pages, dreaming beyond the lagoons of her own childhood, to places like France, where there was a different kind of light. Cities where one didn’t float but were beautiful all the same. She imagined them like confectionary sugar, air-spun and light as gauze.
Orsina had not expected that it would be a concert in I Gesuiti that would cause her to leave Venice. But her life took on another path, when one Friday evening, shortly after her twentieth birthday, her parents closed their shop early and took her to hear a rising young violinist play. It was at that concert that she found herself transported by music and entranced by the musician who played before her.
She and her parents walked that evening to the church, her father in a dark suit, her mother in a pale lavender dress; a cloche hat the color of plum blossoms framed her face. Orsina had chosen something wholly different; she wore her hair loose and a yellow dress made of the lightest chiffon.
As they settled into the wooden pews, the sounds within the church seemed to shift. Gone was the somber atmosphere of a Sunday Mass. It was as if the pale gray and celadon marble, with its intricate patterns and lace cut from stone, was electrified. Excitement and anticipation now filled the holy walls. No one glanced at their prayer books. Instead they all craned their neck to see the dashing violinist tuning his strings.
Soon he stood with his instrument at his side and smiled modestly as the church’s cultural director proudly introduced him as the latest virtuoso from Verona. The audience clapped and Elodie’s father began to play.
Elodie loved the description her mother often told of hearing those first notes.
“Like magic,” she said. “I had seen feathers all my life, and his notes seemed like feathers floating in the air. Arabesques of movement that made my head spin.” Her mother always gasped for air after remembering the moment so intensely, as the memory literally took her breath away.
“When he played a Beethoven Romance the audience was enraptured. Your grandfather tapped me on my leg and told me: ‘You’ll always remember this, the first time you heard genius!’
“But I already knew I would never forget it. I was completely intoxicated by the music.” Orsina always smiled at this point and took another breath. “And I knew that the man who could create such beauty was the man I wanted to love.”
At this point, Elodie’s father would laugh and reach toward his wife’s hand.
“I’m glad I’ve always played my violin with my eyes closed . . . Had I seen your mother in the front pew, with her dark hair falling over her shoulders and her eyes as green as tulip leaves, I would have forgotten every single note. I’m thankful I saw her only after I’d finished playing.”
Orsina beamed. “I told your grandmother that I wanted to learn to play like that. But she shook her head and told me that such playing could not be taught. That is a kiss on the head from God.
“The line was so long to meet your father after that concert. The cultural director himself had to stand between him and the crowd.” Her mother’s black hair was now streaked with wisps of gray, but Elodie could always still see the young girl beneath whenever her mother laughed.
“I saw you right away, Orsina,” her father said. The years melted away from his wife’s face as he saw her once again standing there in front of him for the first time. The pale lemon dress, the jet-black hair, the sparkling eyes. He remembered with great sweetness how her hands trembled as she handed over her program for him to sign.
“He took me from my beautiful lagoon,” her mother would now say, so many years later. “But I have no regrets.” But sometimes, on very hot nights, Elodie could detect a wistfulness in her mother’s voice. There was a parchedness, a thirst within her words. And when the summer bore down its horrendous heat, Elodie could hear her mother’s words like an elegy, sad and full of longing.
“It’s the dryness of the heat here. I’m not used to it . . .” Every summer brought the same lament. Elodie would watch sympathetically as her mother took a handkerchief to wipe her forehead. “I grew up surrounded by water. Inky blue. Green and black. We marked the seasons by the height of water, the mist, and the fog. As a child, my first memory was the touch of water. My first taste was the salt from the sea.”
Elodie knew her mother had tried to fill her life with all things beautiful, and that she saw life through a unique prism. A pair of optimistic eyes. One only had to shift the angle to reveal another facet, to radiate another beam of light.
She filled their house with flowers. Venetian vases the color of ribbon candy were abloom with lilacs in the spring and roses in the summer. She prepared comforting food from her childhood: baccalá and polenta. Risotto steeped in squid ink and Burano cookies, which her father had loved to dip in sweet wine. But music she left to her husband and daughter. The only time Elodie ever heard her mother sing was when she was alone in her bath.
Does everyone have a song? Elodie wondered if even those not blessed with a musical gift still had their own melody somewhere locked within. Her mother’s voice emerged only when she was shoulder deep in water. It struck Elodie like the gentle hum of honeybees, modest and sweet. It floated over the steam of the bath. She saw her mother’s hair piled on top of her head. Her long neck like a swan’s, the angles of her well-chiseled face. She sang songs in Venetian dialect. Mostly love songs, but occasionally she would sing one of the melancholy ballads of the gondoliers.
But it was the latest French songs that her mother seemed to love the most. Her affection for Paris had been the reason she had chosen a French name for her daughter. “Your name came to me like the notes from a harp,” she would tell Elodie. And she would smile at her daughter, knowing that although she had never yet visited that other city of bridges and light, she had created something with its own sparkle and beauty.
Orsina believed that her singing was her own secret. Little did she know that on the nights when she excused herself to bathe, Elodie and her father would lock eyes. If they were practicing their instruments, at the sound of the heated bathwater being poured, they’d place down their bows. Then the two of them would sit back in their chairs and close their eyes. They did not rustle or even make the slightest sound. They just waited, like the audience at the conservatory, for Orsina’s voice to come.
It emerged almost like a flute, her sweet voice floating through the door. Gone was any trace of parchedness. Orsina sang in a language her daughter didn’t understand. But Elodie intuitively comprehended every melody. Her mother’s voice reflected these subtleties in the same way Elodie interpreted her musical scores. Elodie now understood why Orsina had wiped tears from her eyes when she or her father played. She understood what it was like to listen to music created by a person you love.
“My name is Angelo,” he tells her, and Elodie is immediately struck by the sweetness of the name.
Her sleep has refreshed her, and when she awakens, he is sitting in the small dining room. There is a long loaf of bread on the table and a small triangle of cheese. A carafe of wine and two glasses of water.
She notices the paintings on the walls. Small, simple scenes of the water. A fisherman and his net, and a white house against a sea of blue. She finds his age is difficult to estimate. His hair is still dark, but there are the first wisps of gray. He is paler than the men she saw at the port. His eyes are a soft, dusty blue.
There are books everywhere. On the shelves against the walls. On the small coffee table, stacked in threes, with shells placed neatly on top. She sees there is an open book on the counter, placed front down, as if he had stopped in midsentence.
The sight of the books conjures up memories of her first encounter with Luca, and she finds herself wanting to cry, though she stifles the urge to do so. But it snakes up her throat and she pushes it down with such intensity that she feels it twist like a tornado within her belly.
He lets her eat in peace, and she is thankful that he does not need to fill the air with words. In the silence, she hears only the sound of his knife cutting against the plate, or the snap of the bread as he breaks it in his hands. The quiet wash of water as he sips from his glass.
These are sounds that she can tolerate. Their rhythm soft with a simplicity that soothes her. She hears her mother singing Venetian melodies in the distance of her memory. She closes her eyes and tries to quell herself with another’s song.
She wonders if this man sitting across from her realizes that her mind is elsewhere. That as she breaks her bread and chews it into bits and pieces and sips from her water glass, just as he does, her body is her cloak of deception. It occupies the space across from him, it mirrors his in the simple ritual of eating, but her mind is far away.
She travels through time and space. Extracting her spirit from her limbs, in the same way she used to pull music from an instrument that would otherwise have remained silent.
First and always there is the image of Luca standing in his bookstore. His dark hair and canvas smock with two sharp pencils in the front pocket. His fingers smudged with newsprint. The smell of paper. The dizziness from a chamber of so many words.
She tries with all effort to push these thoughts from her mind. Instead, she finds herself reaching for the small dish of salt, but her hands shake as she lifts it toward her. When she looks up, she sees her host has noticed this as well.
She wants to tell him that she is not shaking because she is nervous. She is beyond that. It’s because her fatigue is bone deep. She wonders if that is how the elderly feel. So tired from the arc of their life, there is an almost instinctual urge to surrender. To finally give up and find rest.
After dinner, sensing she is still weary from her journey, he asks her if she would like to take a bath. He is quiet and respectful, giving her privacy as he shows her the door to the small room with the deep, wooden tub already half-filled with cool water.
She waits for him to bring her the kettle of hot water. Two more rounds will follow until the bath is sufficiently warmed, but the sight of the rushing water is a relief. She undresses with the door closed, and the simple ritual of removing her shoes and her skirt soothes her. She unbuttons her blouse and removes her slip and underpants. She does not look at herself in the mirror above the sink. She does not glance at the skin, now stretched taut and white. She places one foot in the water, then the other before she sits and pulls her knees to her chest. She closes her eyes and twists back her hair. Then, softly, quietly, thinking no one will hear her, she begins to sing. Not out of joy. But out of longing. Out of a desire for comfort. Just like her mother did, all those years before.
From the age of eighteen, Elodie attended full-time classes at the Liceo Musicale, studying chamber music, music theory and later orchestra training. In the hallway, she would often pass her father, a professor there.
But she began to notice slight changes in him. A look of strain, of increasing agitation, had replaced his former peaceful expression. He had believed the Liceo to be sacred, one of the few places where Fascism couldn’t penetrate. The saluting and the marches to show support for Mussolini, indeed all of Italy’s politics, had, for the most part, remained outside its walls. But the anti-Jewish laws enacted four years before, forced out every Jewish professor from his position, and Jewish students were no longer able to enroll. Elodie remembered with great clarity the day her father came home enraged and related how Professor Moretti had been told he could not even retrieve some papers in his office.
Her father’s reaction came flooding back to her the moment Lena mentioned to her that she’d been privately instructed by Professor Moretti since she was seven years old. Moretti’s family had the apartment above Lena’s, and the two families had been friends for years. It was Professor Moretti who first noticed Lena’s musical potential, studying the young child’s hands, the expansion between the fingers, and her unique ability to follow complicated rhythm patterns, and had encouraged her parents to nurture it. Over the years, through private lessons after his regular day of teaching at music school, Moretti had taught Lena everything she knew, from first learning to hold her bow to mastering complex chamber pieces. Even now, her parents paid for her to have private instruction with him, giving him the chance to bring in a limited income to his struggling family, since he could no longer work at the school.
One afternoon, after they had finished classes, Lena looked particularly upset.
“What’s the matter?” Elodie pressed.
Lena shook her head. “Things have become worse for the Morettis. They are practically starving. My mother tries to send them some soup and what few vegetables she can spare, but they are embarrassed by the charity.”
She paused and then whispered, “I’m going to join Luigi tonight for a meeting.”
Elodie didn’t understand her. “A meeting for what?”
Lena shook her head. “Of people who want to stop all of this.” She took a deep breath. “Our country will be unrecognizable in a few months. Just wait, Elodie; you’ll see.”
“You’re barely nineteen, Lena.” Elodie attempted to be logical. “You can’t exactly fight the Fascist army.”
“Well, I’m certainly not going to watch as my professor is rounded up with his family and act like I’m blind to it.”
“But you’re not going to do anything that could put you in danger, are you?” Elodie winced just imagining what the police might do to Lena if she were arrested.
“Danger?” Lena smiled and her eyes looked like firecrackers. “Well, no one will help me get false papers for the Morettis until I prove myself to them. That’s why I’ve been helping them distribute materials. I hope to become a messenger for the group. That doesn’t sound too dangerous, does it?”
Elodie looked at her friend, too shocked to utter a reply.
“How about you join me, then?”
“I wish I could, Lena.” Her words sounded so weak, that as soon as she said them, a slight sense of shame came over her.
“It’s just . . . my parents have such expectations for my musical career, and I don’t have a stomach for danger.”
Elodie could sense her friend cringing inside. She knew her answer, her evident lack of courage, was as repellent as the sound of broken strings.
As the weeks went by, Elodie noticed a transformation in her friend. Music was becoming less important to Lena, and Elodie sensed the difference first in her friend’s playing. There was no longer the same connection between her mind, heart, and instrument. Now Lena merely recited the notes. The spirit she used to give to her viola was instead focused on her activities for the early Resistance. Every afternoon, she left Elodie after their studies and went to the art studio of Berto Zampieri, one of the group’s members.
“I wish you’d come, too. Berto’s sculptures are beautiful . . . sensual in a way I’ve never seen before. Brigitte Lowenthal is his girlfriend and muse. God, Elodie, if you could see her! She has bobbed hair; her features are so sharp, she looks like a fox.”
“Sounds like the opposite of you, Lena . . .” Elodie raised an eyebrow. “If she’s the fox of the group, are you their kitten?”
“Hardly!” She laughed and Elodie noticed how alive Lena seemed since she began going to the meetings. “Really, they barely even notice me . . . Brigitte’s the one with the dramatic story. She’s the daughter of one of Verona’s wealthiest Jewish families. They came here from Germany.”
Elodie shook her head. “What you’re describing to me sounds more like you’re attending an art salon, not an anti-Fascist meeting. Soon you’ll be talking about music from the Liceoand playing chamber music for them.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! I’m just giving you a little background on some of the more interesting members. There are others, too, Beppe and many of his friends from the university, and a bookseller by the name of Luca who owns Il Gufo, the shop on the Via Mazzini.
“But we’re all committed in our united goal to liberate Italy from the Blackshirts . . .”
Luca, Berto, Beppe . . . all these men’s names that Lena was mentioning, they were all new to her.
“Of course, some of them are communisti . . . their satchels filled with the books of Marx and Lenin. They’re even printing their own newspaper, borrowing one of the presses from one of Brigitte’s contacts. But they’re looking for other women to help them . . . we can move around more freely. No one thinks we’re up to anything more than playing the instruments in our cases or going home to boil water for pasta.”
Elodie walked home that afternoon by herself, her heavy cello case strapped to her back. She studied the men around her. The Blackshirts congregating in the corner, the police, and the young men smoking cigarettes in the café. She wondered if it was true that she was invisible to them. Her face was unremarkable, her body so slight that she caused no distraction.
I am invisible, she thinks. And suddenly, in a way that surprised her, she felt exhilarated by this transparency. It made her feel strong.
Elodie couldn’t get what Lena told her out of her mind. Part of her was impressed with Lena’s courage, while another part was concerned for her friend’s safety. It was no secret what the Fascist police would do to her should she get caught. Their beatings and torture were a well-known threat to everyone in the city. Many people had simply vanished after being arrested, while others were sent back to their homes severely beaten, their scars a visible reminder of who was in charge of Italy. It was reason enough to stay away. That, and the fact that Elodie could only imagine how devastated her parents would be if anything happened to her.
For several days, Elodie found herself distracted by the knowledge of Lena’s clandestine activities. Over dinner, her father, having sensed the recent lack of focus on her playing, tried to pull Elodie back to her music.
“Elodie, you need to devote even more time to your playing this year. You have to work harder than everyone else, even if it comes easily to you,” her father told her. “You don’t want people to accuse you of benefiting from the fact I teach at the school.”
Elodie nodded her head, aware that she was clearly distracted by her conversation with Lena. “I know.”
She tried to appear focused, but her head was spinning and the words of Lena kept resurfacing, like a song she couldn’t ignore. She could feel her body moving and her voice responding to her parents, but her mind was truly elsewhere.
“You have a great career ahead of you. It may be a bit unconventional for a woman, your mother and I realize this, but you were born with a gift.”
“Several gifts,” Orsina added.
“Yes. I wish I had your memory, Elodie,” he uttered. Pietro never ceased to be amazed that no matter how complex the score was, his daughter already knew her part by heart.
For several weeks, Elodie tried to refocus her attention on her music, but she continued to find herself distracted. Every Tuesday, Elodie and Lena would exit the school; Lena walked one way, to a meeting for the nascent Resistance, and Elodie would return home to quietly practice her cello and have dinner with her parents. But, still, she felt an increasing restlessness. Now everything that she saw on the streets seemed to be in high relief to her. The Balilla banner. The gangs of Blackshirts with their motorcycle brigades, threatening innocent people in the street. Terror was all around, if you opened your eyes and saw things clearly.
Her father, too, seemed to be increasingly angry when he returned home.
But it was the change in Elodie’s playing, not her husband’s behavior, that alarmed Orsina. There was an agitation to it that she had never heard before. A restlessness.
“Don’t you hear it, Pietro?”
“We’re all unnerved, Orsina. We’re at war. The Fascists are ruling the country. Mussolini is getting into bed with the Germans. My Jewish colleagues have been arrested; some have been transported to work camps. Why wouldn’t there be a restlessness to her playing? Even fear!”
“But does she also seem distant at school?”
He sighed. It was clear he was preoccupied with something else.
“I saw Moretti near Piazza Erbe today. He was gaunt. I hardly recognized him.”
Orsina didn’t seem to hear him. “Do you think you could watch her after school . . . See if she’s meeting anyone? What if she has a boyfriend we don’t know about?”
“Did you hear what I just said, Orsina?” His whole face was twisted in disbelief, bordering on anger. “I just told you that a colleague of mine, Professor Moretti, looked like he was on death’s door. God knows how his family is faring since he was forced to resign from school! What’s the matter with you?”
His face was now rushing with blood. She could see small, blue veins swelling by his temples.
“Orsina, where has Italy’s honor gone? Has everyone lost their sense of decency?” The striking of his fist against the table sounded like a gavel.
Orsina fell quiet. The intensity of Pietro’s anger seized her. She had not meant to sound unsympathetic to Professor Moretti’s plight. She was sympathetic. More than her husband could imagine. She, too, felt betrayed by Fascism, but unlike her husband had learned to keep these thoughts silent, for fear of someone overhearing her. She always felt a wave of fear come over her when Pietro voiced his true feelings. How many people had been turned in by their neighbors or friends, just for a better job or a bigger apartment?
Excerpted from "The Garden of Letters"
Copyright © 2014 Alyson Richman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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
Advanced praise for THE GARDEN OF LETTERS
"Richman seamlessly weaves together the languages of music and love, reaching into the heart of the reader with artful portraits of heroism, sacrifice and redemption. Fans of The Lost Wife will again savor Richman's ability to tell a remarkable story about people who are unforgettable and real."— Pam Jenoff, International bestselling author
“Lyrical and rich…filled with beauty and tragedy, romance and heartbreak.”—Jillian Cantor, Author of Margot “Graceful, mellifluous... read this book.”—Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us “The Garden of Letters demonstrates artistry of the highest order. Lyrical and compelling, Alyson Richman’s novel of a cellist coming of age in wartime Italy is as layered as a symphony. Exquisite.”—Erika Robuck, author of Fallen Beauty
“A brilliant novel that will haunt me for years to come.”—Kristina McMorris, bestselling author of The Pieces We Keep
“Alyson Richman crafts a transportive novel vivid with history and fragile with hope.”—Jessica Brockmole, author of Letters from Skye
Praise for THE LOST WIFE
"A truly beautiful heartfelt story...I couldn't put it down once I started it. Ms. Richman is a very special talent."—New York Times bestselling author Kristin Hannah
"Staggeringly evocative, romantic, heart-rending, sensual and beautifully written, Alyson Richman's The Lost Wife may very well be the Sophie's Choice of this generation."— New York Times bestselling author John Lescroart
"Moving, unforgettable and so expertly told, you have to wonder if the author has a gift of time travel—this is storytelling at its very best."—Sarah Jio, New York Times bestselling author
Reading Group Guide
Portofino, Italy, 1943. A young woman steps off a boat in a scenic coastal village. Although she knows how to disappear in a crowd, Elodie is too terrified to slip by the German officers while carrying her poorly forged identity papers. She is frozen until a man she’s never met before claims to know her. In desperate need of shelter, Elodie follows him back to his home on the cliffs of Portofino.? ?Only months before, Elodie Bertolotti was a cello prodigy in Verona, unconcerned with world events. But when Mussolini’s Fascist regime strikes her family, Elodie is drawn into the burgeoning resistance movement by Luca, a young and impassioned bookseller. As the occupation looms, she discovers that her unique musical talents, and her courage, have the power to save lives.? ?In Portofino, young doctor Angelo Rosselli gives the frightened and exhausted girl sanctuary. He is a man with painful secrets of his own, haunted by guilt and remorse. But Elodie’s arrival has the power to awaken a sense of hope and joy that Angelo thought was lost to him forever.
ABOUT ALYSON RICHMAN
Alyson Richman is the national bestselling author of the The Lost Wife, as well as three other critically acclaimed novels: The Mask Carver’s Son, The Rhythm of Memory, and The Last Van Gogh. Her novels are published in more than fifteen languages. She is currently working on a novel about the nineteenth century courtesan, Marthe de Florian, and her Paris apartment that remained untouched for seventy years. Alyson lives in New York with her husband and two children.
- The book moves between several time periods, weaving together Angelo’s and Elodie’s pasts, as well as their present together. How does this enrich the storytelling?
- A major theme of the novel is how we communicate without words, most notably through the power of music. How else do the characters communicate nonverbally?
- How do Elodie’s feelings about music change throughout the book? How does this reflect her shifting worldview?
- Elodie’s father tells her that “you sense what’s hidden beneath the music.” How does this foreshadow her work for the resistance movement? How else is foreshadowing used in the novel?
- Elodie often says that her extremely precise memory is “the Venetian in me.” Do you think it’s possible to inherit traits from your ethnicity?
- Lena seems more alive after attending the resistance meetings, and later on, Elodie observes the same in her mother as she aids in the fighting. Why does this happen?
- Do you think that Elodie, on some unconscious level, purposefully leaves the Wolf’s code out of the cadenza during her concert at the Bibiena? Or is she truly lost in the music? How might the events that follow have changed if she had performed the code?
- As the Germans enter Verona, average citizens step up to fight: “‘Tell us what to do!’ one of the women shouts. She is not a staffetta, but a matron eager to be useful.” Would you have joined the resistance if you lived in wartime Italy?
- The account of the Wolf’s ransacked apartment—“The silk panels were slashed and cut open. The strings of the grand piano had been severed and brutally pulled out like weeds.”—is disturbing, despite its describing only objects. Why? What do you think ultimately became of the Wolf and his wife? Could they have survived?
- The first line of the book states, “the rucksack contains her life reduced to small pieces.” Later on, Dalia produces a box filled with small trinkets that she replaces with Angelo’s letters. What would represent your “life reduced to small pieces?” What objects do you consider sacred?
- Why does Angelo gravitate toward things that need extra care? Considering his history with Dalia and Nasai, has he always done so?
- Valentina can find beauty and value in items that others see only as trash. What are the parallels between her and Venice itself, a city where “beauty and decay seemed to coexist?”
- Why does Dalia paper the room with Angelo’s letters? Why does Angelo leave them intact “like an ancient tomb”? And why does Elodie add to them? What does the “garden of letters” represent to each of them?
- The characters often refer to passages from The Little Prince: “It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” What is the significance of these passages? How does it apply to Elodie’s life in Verona, and later on, in Portofino?