The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian: Book review

Chris Bohjalian's latest novel is an historical mystery set in post-war Tuscany where the Rosasti family is being murdered.  Photo: courtesy of Random House, Inc.

SILVER SPRING, Md., July 9, 2013 — In 1943 the Italians and Germans are losing WWII, and the Nazis are stepping up their efforts to plunder the art and artifacts from Italy. Marchese Antonio Rosati and the women and children in his family live relatively untouched by the war at the family estate, the Villa Chimera, in the fictional Tuscan town of Monte Volta. The two sons of the marchese had been pressed into service in the Italian army commanded by the Germans.

When the Nazi’s show up at the Villa Chimera to see the ancient Etruscan tombs on the property, the intrusion on their lives seems like an irritation that they must endure, but the family is hopeful that the soldiers will soon be gone. However, the officers like the estate and begin using it to host parties for higher level officials. To complicate matters, the marchese’s daughter, Cristina begins a love affair with a German lieutenant. But the war continues to turn, and the Germans face the reality of losing Italy. In their retreat, the Germans return to the Villa Chimera

Statue of a chimera, the mythical creature that the Rosatis’ villa is named after. Photo courtesy of Chris Bohjalian.

Twelve years later, in 1955, daughter-in-law Francesca  Rosati is murdered, her heart cut out and left in an ash tray. Serafina, a detective in Florence, is drawn into a mystery that takes her all the way back to the Rosati’s estate in WWII.

The police do not realize Francesa’s death was anything more than a gruesome murder. It is not until Beatrice Rosati, the family matriarch, also has her heart removed that it becomes apparent that someone is hunting down the surviving members of the Rosati family. Investigating the murders not only takes Serafina through the Rosati’s painful past, but also back to her own painful wartime history as she searches for both a murderer and answers to the holes in her memory.

The narrative is split between the two time lines. While other characters provide their point of view when best suiting the story, Serafina is the main narrator for the 1955 timeline, while the 1943 timeline is divided. Cristina Rosati and her lover, Friedrich Strekker, are the two most prominent narrators during the wartime story, although the duty is shared by other members of the Rosati family and German officers. The suspense is strategically ratcheted up by periodic narrative interjection by the murderer revealing details of his actions and his plans for the rest of the family.

Italian village of Montisi, the inspiration for the fictional town of Monte Volta. Photo courtesy of Chris Bohjalian.

The Light in the Ruins is masterfully crafted. It is a near-perfect blend of historical fiction, mystery and suspense. The historical detail is rich, but the reader never feels overwhelmed with too much information being provided at once. To compliment the historical details, Bohjalian creates a setting so vivid readers can see the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside and envision walking down the narrow streets of centuries old towns. The characters are complex yet believable, and there are enough possible enemies of the Rosatis that readers are kept guessing through both time lines.

Bohjalian is the author of 16 books, including New York Time Bestsellers The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, and Midwives. Midwives was an Oprah Book Club selection. Three of his books have been made into movies, Midwives, Past the Bleachers and Secrets of Eden. His work has also been translated into more than 25 languages.

The Light in the Ruins, ISBN:9780385534819, was published by Doubleday on July 9, 2013. It is available as a hardcover or ebook. For book tour dates and times, visit

Brighid Moret also writes children’s picture book reviews at Big Reads For Little Hands. To receive updates when new columns post on, follow Brighid on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.


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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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