THE MADONNA OF THE MOUNTAINS by Elisa Valmorbida
Spiegel & Grau, June 2018
What an excellent historical fiction hidden gem. Set in early 20th century Italy, The Madonna of the Mountains follows a country girl, Maria Vittoria, through her marriage and birth of four children, chronicling the family’s struggles against the backdrop of Fascist Italy during WWII.
This is one of the more convincingly historical novels I’ve read recently. Valmorbida’s characters are all distinctly of the time period; their trials and tribulations and character arcs are all expertly intertwined with the setting. After incidentally reading two other pieces of historical fiction set in Italy in the month of July, both of which were tonally anachronistic to the extreme (though in one case I believe it was intentional on the author’s part, but I digress), The Madonna of the Mountains was a breath of fresh air. This is a thoroughly convincing account of a country girl hoping against hope that she isn’t too old to marry at the age of twenty-five; a young wife struggling to keep her family fed when food rations are scarce; a mother trying to stave off the dishonor that one of her children has brought to her family. Valmorbida also infuses the narration with northern Italian dialect, and I always love foreign language integration into a novel, but being able to recognize where the dialect deviated from standard Italian was definitely part of the fun for me, and helped anchor me to these characters’ culture.
I will emphasize that unlike a lot of my favorite historical fiction, this is above all else a very quiet story. It concerns itself with the day to day of Maria’s life, the very very subtle ways in which her attitudes start to shift over time. This is not a WWII novel, and the conflicts are recounted from Maria’s very limited perspective (which isn’t to say that it isn’t well-researched; Valmorbida simply hides her research in the background rather than bringing it front and center). So while I did really, really enjoy this, it did lack a certain emotional punch that I’ve come to expect from historical family sagas which are steeped in unapologetic melodrama. But if you’re looking for something a little more subdued, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this.
Thank you to Netgalley, Spiegel & Grau, and Elise Valmorbida for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.