book review: The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida

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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.

8 thoughts on “book review: The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida

    • Ohhh no I should make that clearer! It was written in English but Valmorbida just used A LOT of Italian interspersed in the text, but instead of standard Italian it was a northern dialect. Like the characters thinking an Italian phrase and then it becomes clear what it means through context, that kind of thing. I always love when foreign language is used that way in books but the dialect just added an extra level of enjoyment

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It is really incredibly good, this book. I even think the emotional punch is there – just, as you say, under the surface of things. (The way that she wrestles with what to do about her cousin – her need to be a good Catholic and a good wife conflicting with her need to protect her children – really achieved that for me.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I picked this up on your recommendation so thank you for that! It was really excellent. I definitely wouldn’t say that it was devoid of emotion or anything like that, I certainly felt for Maria and was invested in her conflicts, I just wasn’t left quite as emotionally devastated by it as I am by some similar books where I put them down feeling like I’ve run a marathon.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I’m glad you also loved it. I’ll go check out your review in a second. I’m not Italian by heritage but I used to live in Italy and speak the language so I loved the way this book transported me back there!

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