As I was mapping out my books for this month, I thought to myself, “Self, because this is the month of Italy, I should read Italian books for my WWII list, as well.” After all, Italy was part of the Axis (until they flip-flopped. Again—see WWI). So not only is my monthly WWII history about war effort in Italy (a two-year affair that wasn’t easy), but my historical fiction also takes place in Italy: The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith.
Cenzo, a fisherman in the Venice Lagoon, is busy supporting his family when he comes across a body in the water. He picks it up with the intention of anonymously dropping it off in town—his good deed. Because although the body could be anyone, with the round-up of the Italian Jews and the continued occupation by the German army, the identity is obvious and Cenzo wants to keep his head down until the war ends. Which should be any day now.
However, he learns right away that not only is the body not a body, but a live, breathing human being, but the it is a she. On top of that, the Germans are stopping boats as they search for an escapee Jew.
Despite his promise to a friend to not get involved in anything dangerous—as a celebrated war hero, he holds more influence than he’d like—he can’t seem to smother that human decency within himself that the war didn’t beat out. He can’t seem to do anything other than help the girl—a woman, really—Giulia, stay hidden from her enemies. So he teaches her the fine art of fishing in the lagoon, waiting for an opportunity to get her to safety.
What neither of them realizes is the bond that will grow between them.
Even after—hopefully—sending Giulia to safety, Cenzo worries about her. So when he receives word that she needs help, he goes after her without question. However, there’s one enemy from Giulia’s past that refuses to stay in the past, the same enemy that destroyed her family and threatens her future—a future that she wants desperately to include Cenzo.
I love a good, clean romance. You know, one where the characters are flawed and there are obviously problems, but yet they fight through them (it seems to me that there isn’t much fighting through problems—we pretty much just give up as soon as things get hard).
The Characters. I love Cenzo, a quiet, tortured hero that made mistakes and is struggling to put his past to rest. He’s a little bit cynical, a little bit angry, and a little bit hopeful. Luckily, even a little hope goes a long way. Giulia has a lot of spunk and strength, which I love in a female character, but she’s not as detailed to me as Cenzo. Giorgio, Cenzo’s brother, is complicated. I want to hate him, but he has just enough redeeming qualities to make him likable. Plus, that blasted natural charm shines through the page.
The Storyline. The plot is tightly woven and interesting. I honestly thought the story would consist entirely of Cenzo hiding Giulia. I was pleasantly surprised with the second half of the book when it moved beyond the narrow confines of Cenzo’s lagoon.
The Writing. It was beautiful. Venice and the other towns surrounding the lagoon weren’t overly romanticized. There was dinginess and dirt. Poverty. War-torn areas. Strife. But it was real. And there’s something beautiful in the real, in the stark lines of human suffering and—even more beautiful—in human love and compassion.
Martin Cruz Smith’s The Girl from Venice gave me a glimpse of the war in Italy, a people who were on the side of wrong and then on the side of right, but really on the side of life. The majority of these people didn’t care about the Nazis or Fascism; they cared about eking out a living, helping their neighbors, and surviving until the Allies could free them of German occupation. This book is beautiful and romantic with a thread of hope that weaves throughout the entire plot, turning the death and destruction of war into a glimpse of the human capacity for good.
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If you, one day, tire of reading historical fiction and want to ponder that the official history of the war is not the whole story, you could read some revisionist history on the period. Life is not always so simple as we want to believe it is. The Allies were no saints in many of their actions.