1943: Tucked away in the idyllic hills of Tuscany, the Rosatis, an Italian family of noble lineage, believe that the walls of their ancient villa will keep them safe from the war raging across Europe. But when two soldiers—a German and an Italian—arrive at their doorstep asking to see an ancient Etruscan burial site, the Rosatis’ bucolic tranquility is shattered.
1955: Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence Police Department, has successfully hidden her tragic scars from WWII, at least until she’s assigned to a gruesome new case—a serial killer who is targeting the remaining members of the Rosati family one by one. Soon, she will find herself digging into past secrets that will reveal a breathtaking story of moral paradox, human frailty, and the mysterious ways of the heart.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:August 12, 1961
Place of Birth:White Plains, New York
Read an Excerpt
A woman is sitting before an art nouveau vanity, brushing her hair in the mirror. It is, at least according to the police report, somewhere between midnight and three in the morning, on the first Tuesday of June 1955. For dinner she ate a small portion of an impossibly rich pasta—a fettuccini with pecorino cheese and great ladles of truffle oil—at a restaurant popular with wealthy American and British expatriates five blocks west of the Uffizi and a block north of the Arno. She was one of the few Italians there who wasn’t part of the kitchen or wait staff. She has since bathed, soaping off both her own perfume and the cologne that was worn by her dinner companion—the fellow who had come back here to the apartment, made love with her on the thin bed no more than three feet from the vanity, and then left. He was a suspect in the murder investigation, but only briefly. If he had had even the slightest inclination to spend the evening, there is every chance that I would have executed him that night, too.
At the moment she is wearing her nightgown (which is not especially revealing), though at some point very soon it will be cut off her. Yes, cut. Not even pulled over her head. Sliced from the opening at her collarbone down to the hem, which, when she stands, is mid-shin. By then, of course, she will be dead. Bleeding out. I will have sliced open her neck from one side of her jaw to the other.
Just so you know, that art nouveau vanity is not particularly valuable. The white paint is chipped, and two of the whiplike finials along the right side broke off years ago. Before the war. Moreover, her nightgown is cotton, and the material has started to pill. I mention this so you are not envisioning this room as more glamorous than it is. The woman is still beautiful, even now in middle age and despite the horrific, seemingly unbearable losses she endured a decade ago, in the last year of the war. These days she lives in a neighborhood of Florence that is solidly working- class, a section the tourists visit only when they are impressively, almost hopelessly lost. A decade ago, she would not have known a neighborhood like this even existed.
The apartment has neither a doorman nor a primitive intercom connecting the wrought iron and frosted glass street door with her modest unit. It is locked, but not all that difficult to open. (Really, it wasn’t.) According to the police report, at some point in that roughly three-hour window in the early hours of that first Tuesday in June, I used a blunt object (the handle of my knife, as a matter of fact) to break a pane of the glass near the doorknob. Then I reached in, turned the lock, and opened the door. Remember, this is an unassuming little building. Then I moved silently up the stairway to the third fl oor, where she lived, and knocked on her door. She rose from the vanity, her brush still in her hand, and paused for a moment on her side of the wood.
“Yes?” she asked. “Who is it?”
And here I lied. I said I was her dinner companion, speaking into my gloved hand to muffle my voice.
So she opened the door and would be dead within moments.
And why did I slice open her nightgown? I didn’t violate her. It was so I could cut out her heart. A woman with the lilting name of Francesca Rosati, who had once been a Tuscan marchese’s daughter-in-law, was my first.
But, as you will see, not my last.
The planes flew in great flocks that May over the Crete Senesi, the lunarlike landscape that marked the Tuscan countryside southeast of Siena. By night the planes were British or American bombers and their destination was Bologna. By day they were German, long streams of Junkers, and their destination was either Sicily or Naples. After that they would attempt to reach Tunisia and reinforce the Axis troops there, but most—and Cristina Rosati knew this from the BBC, not from her own country’s newspapers—would be shot down and crash into the Mediterranean Sea. The Italians and Germans in North Africa were finished, and there was absolutely no chance of evacuating them; the army might as well have been on the moon. Sometimes Cristina wished that her brothers were in Tunisia so they might be captured by the Allies and sent to England, where they could await the end of the war in the safety of a prisoner-of-war camp. Instead, Marco was in Sicily, preparing the beaches there for the anticipated Allied invasion. He was an engineer. Vittore, an archeologist, was safe in Florence, but there was bombastic talk on the radio and in the newspapers about the need for total war, and no one in her family would have been surprised if he were suddenly given a rifl e and sent off to Sardinia or Greece or some battery along the coast. Both of her brothers were older than she was; barely eighteen, Cristina was the baby of the three Rosati children.
For a long moment she stood outside on the villa’s southern terrace and watched the planes, the dark fuselage of each aircraft gleaming in the sun. She was holding four cloth dolls that belonged to her young niece, as well as the scraps of red and gold napkins from which she was crafting Renaissance dresses for the two princesses and tunics for the two men—neither of whom, according to the little girl, was a prince. Cristina had been playing with the child on the terrace when the girl’s mother had informed them that it was nap time and herded the child and her brother—who at that moment had been running like a madman along the edge of the swimming pool, using a thin beech branch as a saber—upstairs to the nursery.
And so Cristina was alone when the planes droned southward, high above the Villa Chimera. She was fascinated by them, held almost spellbound. Someday, when the world once again was at peace, she would fly somewhere in an airplane. To Pisa, maybe. Or Naples. Or perhaps all the way to Paris. She couldn’t imagine anything more glamorous.
Now a pair of small lizards raced past her, faster than snakes, darting just beyond her toes into the lilacs that grew along the edge of the loggia. Nearby she heard the bells on the sheep and, farther away, the low thrum of a distant tractor. She thought she heard one of the estate’s horses whinny. Arabella, most likely.
Finally, when the planes had disappeared far to the south, she ventured inside. Her sister- in- law appeared almost at the same moment, tiptoeing down the stairs so she wouldn’t disturb her children. She was shaking her head.
“The planes are starting to scare Massimo,” Francesca said. Massimo was seven, old enough to understand the connection between the planes and the dangers his father might soon face in Sicily. He’d overheard the conversations of the more injudicious grown- ups about where the Allies would strike when they had finished with Africa. And then there was all the talk of the bombing in Genoa and Turin, and the possibility that their family might take in urban children whose homes had been destroyed by the Allied air attacks.
“And Alessia?” Cristina asked. Her niece was five and utterly fearless.
Francesca shrugged and poured herself a glass of iced tea. “Oblivious. The world is a game to that child. Fortunately.” Then she sat down and stretched out her long legs before her. She, too, was barefoot, but somewhere she had found a bottle of polish and painted her toenails red. She was wearing one of the elegant floral skirts she had purchased when they had been in Florence just before Christmas. It was inappropriate here in the country in the middle of the afternoon, but it swayed like a ballerina’s when she moved, and Francesca wasn’t made for a world of scarcity or sacrifice. She was nine years older than Cristina, twenty-seven now, and had always seemed to her younger sister-in-law to embody the chic that Cristina had glimpsed in her visits to Rome or Milan or, more frequently, Florence. Francesca dyed her hair the color of honey and clearly had no intention of allowing herself to grow round while her husband was in Sicily and she was here alone with the children.
“I hate airplanes,” she added after a moment. “No good has come from an airplane. Ever. You realize that, don’t you?”
Cristina smiled. Francesca was fond of great, sweeping pronouncements. “You know that’s not true.”
“I know nothing of the sort,” she said. “I saw you from the window. You were watching the planes. Someday you’ll be looking up and they’ll be bombing you. Us. The estate. You watch. Someday the bombs will be falling on our heads.”
Outside, they heard a car winding its way up the gravel road that led to the villa, and Cristina wandered to the dining room window. The automobile was a long, black army staff car. No doubt people had been talking as the vehicle had wound its way through the narrow streets of the village, past the hulking medieval granary, and then up the hill to the estate. She watched as the young driver, a private, hopped out and opened the rear door for the two officers, one German and one Italian. She didn’t recognize either of them and felt a pang of anxiety. They couldn’t possibly be bringing good news, she thought, but nevertheless she tried to reassure herself. The closest her brother Vittore ever came to danger were his arguments with the Germans when they wanted to steal some treasure in Arezzo or Florence and take it to Germany—and those disputes, he insisted, were civilized. The Germans would ask and he would say no. They would grow more adamant and he would explain why the painting or statue or vase could not be moved. And then they would either ignore him completely and loot the artifact anyway or—for reasons that were inexplicable to Vittore but he guessed had everything to do with whether the Germans had already promised the piece of art to a spouse or mistress or a more senior officer—back down and choose a less valuable item from the collection.
But if they were not here about Vittore, did that mean that something horrific had happened to Marco? She tried to convince herself that this wasn’t likely either. Francesca’s husband was in Sicily, and there was no fighting there. Still, he was a soldier—a captain—as well as an engineer, and the idea that he might be wounded or dead caused her to feel a wave of nausea, and she placed her palms fl at on the stucco windowsill for balance. She told herself that she was overreacting; this had to be something else. Why would the army dispatch two officers to inform the family that an engineer was dead on a Sicilian beach or an archeologist had died at his post in a . . . a museum? Didn’t they send telegrams?
She felt Francesca breathing behind her. “Do you know them?” Cristina asked her sister-in-law.
Francesca shook her head. “Why would I know some thug and his sorry little sidekick?”
The driver was standing beside his vehicle, but the officers were approaching the villa. The German outranked the Italian but looked a decade younger: midthirties, Cristina guessed. Maybe thirty- five. The Italian had his dark hair pomaded almost flat on his head and a thin mustache he had waxed into a pair of curls. His cheekbones were sharp; he was a handsome man. The German was two or three inches taller, his hair the washed- out color of the wheat fields in August. He was carrying a sidearm; the Italian was not.
“They’re going to want something, you know,” her sister-in-law added. “The barbarians are here to commandeer something. One of the cars, maybe. Or a truck. Maybe they’re after the sheep.”
“I hope that’s all it is,” Cristina murmured.
With one hand Francesca briefly rubbed her sister-in-law’s back and shoulders and reassured her: “You don’t need to worry about the boys. I am sure this is another annoyance. Not a new tragedy.”
The front door was open to catch whatever breezes might come in from the west, but the officers hovered in the entryway, their caps in their hands. Francesca beckoned them into the foyer, a wide and airy room itself, with a long fl at window and shelves of Etruscan vases, amphoras, and kraters—some replicas and some original, but so common that the museums hadn’t a use for them. “My children are sleeping, so you’ll have to speak softly,” Francesca said, her way of greeting the two men.
The Italian nodded. “I am Major Lorenzetti. This is Colonel Decher.” He glanced into the kitchen and the dining room and continued, “Your home is as lovely as I’d heard. I presume you two are the marchese’s daughters.”
“I am the marchese’s daughter-in-law,” Francesca corrected him, emphasizing her father-in-law’s title in a fashion that conveyed how absurd she thought it was. Francesca believed that the very notion of dukes and princes and counts in the middle part of the twentieth century was ridiculous. She found it a source of unending wonder that her people were ruled by a dictator and a puppet king and her father- in- law owned a small fiefdom. Cristina knew that Francesca was fundamentally apolitical, but when pressed to claim an affiliation with any political structure or school of thought, the woman would express a vague predisposition toward the Hollywood star system in America, because studio heads and movie stars dressed well, made art, and left her alone. “This,” she continued now, motioning toward Cristina, “is the marchese’s only daughter. My father-in-law has two boys and this one lovely girl.”
The Italian major bowed just the tiniest bit. “Of course. I spoke without thinking. You must be Francesca,” he said. “And you must be Cristina. Is the marchese home?”
“He and his wife, the marchesa”—and here Francesca again briefly paused—“are down in the olive grove with the overseer.”
“They’ll be back soon?”
“Then we can wait.”
“If you wait quietly. Remember, my children just started to nap.”
The Italian nodded, but the German shook his head and scowled. Cristina worried that her sister-in-law’s insolence had gone far enough and jumped in. “Please, let’s wait for my father on the veranda,” she said. “It’s shady there and you’ll be more comfortable. I can bring you some iced tea.”
It was clear, however, that she had already waited too long to try to mollify their guests. In an Italian that was heavily accented with German, Colonel Decher snapped, “We don’t have time to wait, we’re due back in Florence. I don’t see why you can’t show us what we need to see as well as your father could. I understand there was a dig on your property in 1938. That’s why we’re here. We want to see the necropolis, and given our time constraints, we want to see it now.”
Cristina almost laughed. She had been shivering slightly, and now her whole body relaxed. This visit had nothing to do with either of her brothers. It had nothing to do with the needs of their armies’ quartermasters. This pair wanted nothing, it seemed, but to see the underground tombs on the far side of the vineyard. The family had come across the burial site when they had expanded the vineyard in 1937 and broken ground for a new shed that would accommodate a larger press and additional barrels. The builders had understood quickly that they had unearthed, literally, a small Etruscan tomb. The first vestiges they discovered? Three columns. Two were mere stumps, but one still towered seven feet high when they cleared away the cedars and the brush and the soil. Then they found a pair of funerary urns. At that point the family moved their plans for the new shed to the other side of the vineyard, and a few months after that the archeologists and historians arrived for the dig. The younger of Cristina’s two older brothers, Vittore, had joined the group and found his calling.
“Yes, I can show it to you,” Cristina said. “But I hope you won’t be disappointed. It’s not really a necropolis. That would imply it’s much, much bigger than it is. And there’s not a lot there now.
The artifacts that had value—the urns and the sarcophagi and the larger vases—all went to the museum in Arezzo.”
“Which means they’re probably in Berlin by now,” Francesca murmured, but she was staring out the window as she spoke and so Cristina did not believe that Decher had heard her.
“Fine,” the colonel said. “Show us whatever remains. Do we drive or walk?”
“We can walk,” Cristina told him. Then she said to her sister-in-law, “I’ll get some candles and take the gentlemen there. That way, you can stay with the children. If Father returns, I’m sure he’ll want to join us.” She glanced out toward the automobile, where the young driver was studying a map. For the first time she really looked at the private. He was German and might have been as young as she was. “Would your driver like to wait inside while we’re gone?” she asked Lorenzetti, but before he could respond, Decher said, “He’ll remain at his post.” And then the colonel pivoted smartly on his heels and started outside. Lorenzetti rolled his eyes and shrugged, a small apology of sorts, and motioned for Cristina to go first, as if they were entering a ballroom for a dance. Behind them, Cristina heard her sister-in-law snort.
They passed the statues beside the loggia and in the garden, Venus and the chimera, and then continued out toward the fields. The air was dry and the grass felt like twine as it brushed over Cristina’s toes, and she found herself gazing at the high black boots that the two officers were wearing. She had slipped into her sandals before they had left the villa, because eventually they would have to cross a thin path carved into rock to reach the tombs. The path was no more than sixty meters long—two millennia earlier, it had been far more extensive—but there were sharp points on the tufa stone and it wasn’t smart to walk there in bare feet. Still, Cristina could not imagine wearing high leather riding boots in the heat of the afternoon the way soldiers were expected to. She had a pair a bit like them, but this time of year she wore them only at the very beginning or the very end of the day, when she was placing a saddle on her beloved Arabella and going for a ride.
Overhead they heard birds. They smelled jasmine and oleander. Neither Decher nor Lorenzetti said a word as they walked, and she stifled her own need to speak, including her interest in why they wanted to see her estate’s underground ruins. They passed the long rows of Sangiovese grape arbors and then descended a steep slope, and Cristina cut ahead of them because the brush was growing thicker and higher and they were approaching a path they would have to navigate single-file. In a moment they would reach the Y. If they turned right, they would continue through a copse of cedar and beech and reach the small Rosati family cemetery, including the modest Roman temple her grandfather had built. If they veered left, it would feel to them as if they were sinking into the earth: the path would narrow as the ground around them rose up to their hips, then shoulders, then heads. The walls would turn from sod to stone, and it would seem as if they were walking inside a crag in a cliff. The sky would be reduced to a thin swath of blue, broken in parts by the branches of the trees that grew above them along the sides of this ancient channel. The stretch reminded her of the photos she had seen of the trenches from the earlier world war, minus the wooden planks on which the soldiers stood. And at the end they would reach the Etruscan tomb.
Finally Lorenzetti broke the silence. “Have you heard from Marco lately?”
She turned back to the major, surprised. “I didn’t know you knew my brother.”
“I don’t. Well, I don’t know Marco. I know Vittore.”
“From Florence, of course. Sometimes we work together.”
She considered this, aware that Francesca would probably have interrogated the pair if she had been present and Lorenzetti had just announced that he knew Vittore. “Why didn’t you tell us this back at the villa?”
“I started to. But your sister-in-law didn’t seem especially pleased by our visit.”
“More the reason you should have.”
He shrugged. “Neither Colonel Decher nor I have any need to curry her favor.”
“Does Vittore know you’re here?”
“Are you an archeologist? An art historian?”
“The latter,” said Lorenzetti. “I could bore you to death with what I know about Donatello and bas-relief. These days I am merely a soldier—or, to be precise, the host for Colonel Decher. The colonel has joined us from Paris. He’s come to the Uffizi because apparently there has been some discussion that select artistic treasures may have to be moved to Germany for safeguarding until the end of the war. Lately there seems to be a particular interest in Etruscan artifacts.”
She understood that safeguarding was a euphemism for theft. According to Vittore, the Germans were much more likely to commandeer art from the museums and cathedrals in the occupied lands than they were from their ally here in the Mediterranean, but as it grew apparent that Italy would be invaded, the German presence, measured in both curators and tanks, was growing.
“Of course, I know very little about the Etruscans,” Lorenzetti added. “I find their bucchero aesthetically interesting but understand next to nothing about the firing process—how some of their pottery wound up that remarkable black. But ask me about the old sacristy in San Lorenzo? My lectures could have you sleeping like a baby in minutes.”
She turned to Decher. “Is your specialty Etruscan art?”
He dipped his chin and for the first time offered the tiniest hint of a smile. “Before the war I was an architect. Now I’m a soldier. All I know about the Etruscans comes from a single book I read in my quarters the other night.”
“Well, they were a great mystery as a people. Vittore finds it intriguing how little we know about them.” Then: “And you both work with Vittore at the museum? He’s never mentioned you.”
“I’ve known him since February,” said Lorenzetti. “But the colonel has known him barely a week. He and his adjutant just arrived. We all happen to be billeted at the same hotel and are all, to varying degrees, a part of the same little museum . . . team.”
“What do you do, Major Lorenzetti?”
“Just like your brother,” the Italian officer said, his voice delighting in the irony, “I oversee and preserve our nation’s rich artistic heritage.”
For a long moment, Cristina watched as the two officers stared at the arched doorways cut into the stone. The German paused to decapitate a couple of mushrooms with the tip of his boot. She had taken guests here before—family friends, her father’s business associates—and she had been present when Vittore had led his fellow students on tours. Initially everyone was unimpressed.
The thin path opened upon a small cul-de-sac, the earthen and rock walls composing it little more than three meters high. Field grass grew along the roof of the tombs, and the roots and longer strands dangled over the archways like bangs. Altogether, two rectangular windows had been unearthed, and four arched doorways. And then there were the remains of the columns: one seven feet high, and a pair that barely would reach the knees of a grown man. Once the columns had helped to support a great sloping roof that in all likelihood had spanned the cul-de-sac. Now the roof was gone and weeds climbed up between the stones. The artwork and ornamentation that long ago had graced this section had faded into nothingness over time, and it looked primitive—the home of cavemen, Cristina thought.
It was only when visitors ducked their heads and wandered underneath the archways, extending before them their flashlights or candles or lanterns, that they began to understand the magnificence of what had once been here. There were six tombs, the chambers cut deep into the hillside. Inside, the artwork was better protected from centuries of erosion and wasting and sun. Paintings of musicians and dancers, invariably in profile, ran along the walls and low ceilings, as did drawings of fruit trees and birds and, in a corner of one tomb, a young fisherman. From one entrance a visitor could walk smack into the short row of pedestals with saucerlike tops on which urns the size of thigh-high rosemary shrubs had once rested. From another entrance a person might discover the tomb with the long platforms on which the Rosatis had found the sarcophagi, two of them, both beautifully preserved, one with a sculpture of a young man atop the lid and the other with a man and a woman—a husband and a wife. And though the urns and the sarcophagi and the funeral artifacts had been exhumed and sent to the museum in Arezzo, the musicians and the dancers and the birds remained on the walls.
Cristina handed a candle to each of the officers and kept one for herself. She started to fumble with the matches, but the Italian major had a cigarette lighter and lit all three of the tapers in an instant. Then together they stooped and she led them through the middle archway, into the first of the rooms with the low ceilings where two and a half millennia earlier perhaps her very own ancestors had been laid to rest.
Reading Group Guide
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this book—as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading The Light in the Ruins we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.
1. Before reading The Light in the Ruins, how much did you know about the Nazi occupation of Italy and the rise of fascism? Which historical aspects of the novel surprised you the most?
2. If you had been in Antonio and Beatrice’s position, would you have shown any hospitality to the Germans? How would you have navigated the grim choices such families were forced to make?
3. Chris Bohjalian is known for creating unique narrators. What sort of person did you picture when you read the italicized passages? How did your theories about the killer shift?
4. How did love flourish between Cristina and Friedrich despite their circumstances? How did they rise above their cultural differences? What does their romance say about the human experience?
5. What does Enrico and Teresa’s story illustrate about the emotional cost of war? Who are the novels heroes?
6. Discuss Serafina’s relationship to the past. Why is she able to ignore those who accuse the Rosatis of colluding with the enemy?
7. How did you react to Friedrich’s compassion and sensitivity? What was it like to experience a character who so strongly defies stereotypes?
8. What does Vittore’s interest in archaeology say about his personality? What timeless aspects of life are captured in the novel’s artifacts? How do antiquities provide a form of immortality to the people who created them?
9. Discuss the novel’s title. How is it reflected in the theme of survival, albeit with physical or emotional scars? How could someone like Francesca—who was criticized for making waves—find meaning in life after so many tragic losses? Why is Villa Chimera ultimately an appropriate name for the estate?
10. Compare Marco and Vittore. Which one uses power more effectively? How do they perceive their heritage and their responsibilities to their families?
11. What are your theories about the making of a soldier like Erhard Decher? What does it take for someone to become as ruthless and as loyal as he? In what ways did his supposed strengths lead to his downfall?
12. In the closing scenes, when Muller orders Cristina to take him to the hideout of the partisans, would you have done as she did? Could you give your life to protect another?
13. Which aspects of The Light in the Ruins echo the storytelling in previous Bohjalian novels you have enjoyed?