Book Review: A Thread of Grace

For one of the Juneau-area book clubs I’m involved with, I just finished:

Russell, Mary Doria. 2005. A thread of grace: a novel. New York: Random House.

Here’s the summary of the book from WorldCat:

Set in Italy during the dramatic finale of World War II, this new novel is the first in seven years by the bestselling author of The Sparrow and Children of God. It is September 8, 1943, and fourteen-year-old Claudette Blum is learning Italian with a suitcase in her hand. She and her father are among the thousands of Jewish refugees scrambling over the Alps toward Italy, where they hope to be safe at last, now that the Italians have broken with Germany and made a separate peace with the Allies. The Blums will soon discover that Italy is anything but peaceful, as it becomes overnight an open battleground among the Nazis, the Allies, resistance fighters, Jews in hiding, and ordinary Italian civilians trying to survive. Mary Doria Russell sets her first historical novel against this dramatic background, tracing the lives of a handful of fascinating characters. Through them, she tells the little-known but true story of the network of Italian citizens who saved the lives of forty-three thousand Jews during the war’s final phase. The result of five years of meticulous research, A Thread of Grace is an ambitious, engrossing novel of ideas, history, and marvelous characters that will please Russell’s many fans and earn her even more.

The complicated scenarios that Ms. Russell lays out in her book seem to be mostly accurate, although there is argument over the details. The emotional impression the book made on me was similar to that of the movie Training Day with Denzel Washington. That movie was extremely well crafted with fully three dimensional characters. The movie was very engaging from the opening credits. It truly was a work of art. And I never, ever, ever want to see it again.

Same with this book. I will bring it to my book group and discuss it, but I’m NEVER reading it again. Not because it is badly written, but because reading it was a harrowing and depressing experience for me. There are signs of hope and reminders that even in the darkest times, people can do the right things – whether for noble reasons or for mere self interest or hatred of an occupying power.

Ms. Russell does an admirable job of creating fleshed out characters that you really care about. She’s actually able to make you feel sympathy for some war criminals – how the path to the gas chamber could START with good intentions. It’s like the frog boiling in water. She also shows how war crimes can be the result of accident. Ms. Russell does not excuse these crimes but does show they don’t have to originate as full-blown intentions of evil. And in some ways, this is no real comfort.

Character arcs are well explained. If someone breaks from previously established reason, a good reason is usually offered. Aside from it being too depressing (but what novel about a war zone under occupation won’t be?) my only real complaint about the book is that it had about four spots where I just didn’t get the transition from one scene to the next. I re-read those sections but just didn’t really get how the scenes tied together. It might have been me. Even if it wasn’t, we’re talking about less than five percent of the book.

If you want a realistic portrayal of life under Nazi occupied Europe and partisan resistance and you don’t mind characters you come to love being ground to dust under the heel of war, this book is for you. If you’re looking for a good fictionalized account of the motivations of characters in extreme situations, this is for you. If you want to know how trauma can affect someone for both good or ill, this is a good read for you.

Me? I find life grinding enough. Give me something from the Vorkosigan Saga any day. Almost anything from Mercedes Lackey would do too. In fiction, I want to know everything will be ok in the end. My one exception is Sarah Rees Brennan books but at least SOME of her books have happy endings.  If someone recommended a Mary Doria Russel novel that did have a mostly happy ending, I’d be willing to read it. But I won’t be picking up another of her well written books unprompted.

References:

Italy – USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (Introductory Notes) – http://libguides.usc.edu/vha

H-Net Review of Daniel Carpi. Between Mussolini and Hitler: The Jews and the Italian Authorities in France and Tunisia. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994. ix + 342 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87451-662-3. – http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.php?id=1166

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