We all remember that incredible feeling of first love, more than likely with rose tinted glasses, full of nostalgia and novelty. It was on my mind while reading this book, mainly that joyful moment when you realise that they actually love you too. It’s intoxicating. The first time I fell in love, I leapt in feet first and had my heart broken, but I held a candle for him for many years and had it set in my mind as a perfect love. With a lot of years and a bit more wisdom, I can see it differently. However, I was always be grateful for the experience, because it showed me how great my capacity for love was. How much better would this experience be when I was ready for it, if it came my way again? Our novel follows Evelina, a young woman living in a remote part of northern Italy. She lives with her parents, her sister Benedetta and two formidable old ladies, her grandmother and great aunt. Life is peaceful for most of the time, but as WW2 looms closer there are changes both personal and for the whole of Italy. The influence of Hitler and his agreements with Italy’s leader Mussolini, will change all of their lives forever.
The central relationship in the novel illustrates these changes most dramatically. People of the Jewish faith have lived in Evelina’s village for so long they are simply part of the fabric of the place. Evelina has never realised that their village tailors, the Zanotti family, are Jewish, so when she meets their son Ezra she can’t imagine any obstacles to the way she feels, apart from some parental misgivings about his ability to support her. Yet, the outside world is about to come crashing in on the tentative feelings growing between these two young people. Within Evelina’s family circle, it is Benedetta’s new husband who brings the new politics into their midst. A staunch supporter of Mussolini, he is behind Hitler’s initiative to rid Europe of Jewish people. When he brings his views to the breakfast table, Evelina’s father says his views are not welcome in his home. Sadly, Benedetta then leaves dutifully with her husband bringing a rift between them. They’ve heard terrible stories, of Jewish people being taken to a prison camp in the far North of Italy before being placed on a train bound for Auschwitz- Birkenau. Friends start to plead with Ezra’s father to leave and knowing what’s coming. When it does, Ezra evades capture and joins the Resistance. Evelina creates a safe space in their chapel for Resistance fighters to rest and replenish themselves. After a brief and family sanctioned relationship, with a Jewish girl from the village who worked for Evelina’s family, the closeness of war and the threat to his family combine to influence Ezra. He breaks his promise to her and comes to Evelina, assuring her of his long held love for her, despite their religious difference. He wants to be true to his emotions rather than please his parents. Thus far he had seen Evelina as out of reach, now a blissful courtship develops. As summer blooms alongside their love, they create memories neither will ever forget. So, when he is captured, Evelina’s grief is devastating. Yet, she waits until the news confirms the worst; Ezra and his entire family are dead. With the Italy she knows gone forever Evelina makes a huge decision, she will cross the Atlantic and make the voyage to New York to live with her aunty, in Brooklyn.
Evelina’s story is told across two time periods, forty years after the war in Brooklyn, then back in time to WW2 Italy as she has flashbacks. She’a now 63 and married to an older professor called Franklin, with whom she has a family. She has built a lovely, welcoming home for her family and their close friends, usually other immigrants from Italy and the much beloved Uncle Topino and her Aunt Madelina. It’s a loving environment and her relationship with Franklin is a very loving one, even though part of her heart will always belong to Ezra.
‘And their love for each other had deepened. She loved Ezra still, she would never stop loving him, but she loved Franklin too. It was, indeed, possible to love two men in very different ways. She realized now, in her wisdom, that there were many faces to love.’
This really is a sweeping epic with a central love story that stayed with me, although I had so much respect for Evelina’s husband Franklin too. I didn’t know a lot about Italy’s role during WW2 and the background research did open my eyes to how they ended up drawn into Hitler’s plans for the future. It shows how the Nazi’s ideology broke up previously peaceful communities and even families like Evelina’s. She and her sister are very close, but she has to circumvent Benedetta’s husband to communicate with her. When he’s eventually called up to fight, the sisters are reunited and the family live together through the rest of the war. I loved the connections and help both sisters give to the Resistance, both of them with relationships torn apart by war in very different ways. This was a beautiful story where familial love is concerned, but the central love story is heart rending and has a twist that will truly surprise you. I often find love stories lacking in substance, but this wasn’t one of them. It was my first Santa Montefiore novel, but I’m very sure it won’t be my last.
Published by Simon and Schuster 7th July 2022
Born in England in 1970, Santa Montefiore grew up in Hampshire. She is married to writer Simon Sebag Montefiore. They live with their two children, Lily and Sasha, in London. Visit her at http://www.santamontefiore.co.uk.