“The Garden of Letters” is the story of a young cello student, Elodie Bertoletti –- picture Audrey Hepburn in “Love in the Afternoon” –- who gets caught up in the Italian Resistance during WWII. There’s been much written and filmed about the French and Polish Resistance but this is my first introduction to the heroes and heroines of the Italian cause.
If you’re looking for a traditional romance, “The Garden of Letters” by Alyson Richman (Berkley Books) may not be your best choice: Although romance pervades the novel and is the subtext for much of the plot, still –- as in life –- it’s the backdrop rather than the main story. But if you’re looking for a story set in a rarely-explored milieu, with appealing characters and unexpected twists, this is your book.
Although the resistance is at the story’s core, various subplots run through the book. As the characters move back and forth in time and place, from Venice in the 20s to Portofino in the 30s to Verona in the 40s, with a nod to the disastrous Italo-Ethiopian War in the mid-30s, each personality is given an in-depth history, and background. If at times, some of the creations don’t sufficiently come to life, many of them do leave an indelible impression on the reader.
Elodie’s life as a cellist, both before and during her participation in the anti-Fascist campaign, is painstakingly well-researched, but I found this heroine less compelling and fully-written than some of the other characters, such as her parents and Angelo, the Veronese doctor who rescues her as the book begins. And although titled “The Garden of Letters,” based on another history running through the novel, the book might be better named after the musical notes that Elodie pursues, both in her playing and in her underground activities.
As the author explains in an explicatory coda, many of the characters are based on real-life historical figures. Luca, a bookseller and Elodie’s first love, who hides weapons and codes inside his books, was inspired by the original owner of an extant bookstore in Venice. Many of the other Resistance characters are based on documented histories, as well. Although this is not primarily the story of the Italian-Jewish experience during the War, Jewish characters abound, from Jewish Resistance fighters who worked alongside their Italian confreres to peripheral characters whose sudden absence or removal to unknown destinations is duly recorded.
By and large, the novel is engaging and enlightening on a subject not often depicted. If occasionally I found the dialogue somewhat overblown and falsely dramatic, especially between the various young lovers, perhaps you can put that down to my middle-aged insensibility.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.