Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Madonna of the Mountains

Title:  The Madonna of the Mountains
Author:  Elise Valmorbida
Publication Information:  Spiegel & Grau. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0399592431 / 978-0399592430

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Her father has gone to find her a husband"

Favorite Quote:  "Not knowing is a kind of happiness."

The Madonna of the Mountains is a World War II story but from a perspective I have not read before. Maria Vittoria's story begins in 1923. Her family has survived World War I in the Italian mountain village where the family has lived for centuries. Maria is 25 years old. Her wish and her family's wish is for her to be married; she is already considered a little old to be eligible.

The book begins as a groom is found, and a wedding takes place. The story then follows Maria over the next almost thirty years. This is a saga of survival. At a personal level, there is love, disappointment, births, deaths, moves, businesses, friendships, and all the other elements of a life centered on family. At a broader level, there are the years of the the rise of the fascist regime and World War II. At each juncture, Maria does what she has to to survive and to ensure that her family survives.

The setup of the book shows the potential of an engrossing story. A background of struggle and war. A patriarchal society in which women are expected to be subservient to men. An arranged marriage. A beautiful Italian countryside setting. A faith that judges. A struggle of a strong woman to keep her family safe. Unfortunately, for me, the book never quite reaches the potential suggested by these elements.

The pace of this book is very slow. The story is a quiet one, focused on the day to day struggles of life. That may be purposeful, but in this case, it becomes a challenge to keep reading. I keep waiting for more. In that waiting, somehow Maria and her struggles never quite become real for me. I don't invest in her as a character, which makes the book a challenge. In addition, the story stays narrowly focused on Maria and her family such that I don't get a sense of the sweeping history that is the context for this story. This is not a historical fiction that engages me enough to read more of the actual history of that region at that time.

The oddest note in this story is the characterization of the Madonna in this book. For Maria, the Madonna is a guide through life as represented by a statuette that goes with Maria all through her life. It appears to "speak" to Maria throughout the book, offering commentary and advice. Unfortunately, the tone is almost always negative and judgmental. Perhaps, it represents Maria's conscience and her internal dialogue of guilt. In every situation, the Madonna judges Maria and finds her lacking - in virtue, as a wife, as a mother, and as a woman. That psychological impact is never really explored; it is just there as a jarring, sad note throughout. In fact, after a while, it becomes a repetitive note that just never goes anywhere. To some extent, that becomes the story for me.

Note that the book ends rather suddenly. The end point to me seems to indicate that a sequel might be coming. While I am still intrigued, unfortunately, I do not know if I will follow along.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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