Lisa Scottoline offers us an entertaining stand alone story– historical fiction — that opens in Palermo, Sicily in 1810. Early on, Franco Fiorivanti, who serves as the manager of a lemon grove for a local Baron, gets involved in a favor for the Baron that sets off a chain of events making up the largest part of this novel. Franco, is ambitious, but he is not in a class or economic position to turn down his employer. He will do just about anything for his boss and this is evidence of that fact: The favor is ensuring that a five year old boy is kidnapped.
Scottoline weaves together Franco’s story with others, including some great multidimensional characters, along with some fabulously sketched minor players to add constant color and texture to the story. Among these characters are wives and children, servants, employees and inmates of the local mad house, the owner of a sulphur mine some hours away, an elderly goat cheese maker who believes he is the last practicing Jew in Sicily, a housekeeper who can do anything her employer wants– for a price, a novitiate in a convent, a resourceful mother raising her child to live off the land and protect itself, a wide array of criminals and more. In the course of all this, we learn about the barbaric treatment of the mentally ill in this period and the beginnings of a reform movement; child labor issues; superstition; faith; what it was like to toil in a sulphur mine (not fun); the lemon grove “industry”; who had the right to own land in early 19th century Italy and much much more.
Gaetano Catalano is a fairly new lawyer working in the office of an established lawyer. He tends to be distracted by a compulsion to perform good works as a member of a secret society, Beati Paoli, made up of members of the aristocracy. Gaetano fervently admires St. Paul. The society identifies and tries to solve crimes that are not getting sufficient police attention. He is so idealistic that his search for the kidnapped child and the kidnapper impacts his work, his marriage and potentially his future.
Mafalda, a young wife in a fishing town, is about to be a first time mother. Something happens that impacts her little family’s life in the town, right around the time she gives birth. Superstitious nonsense takes hold and Mafalda must make decisions quickly that lead to a story that evolves throughout the novel.
The entire story is told simply, like a fable pointing us to the consequences of our choices and actions. Scottoline vibrantly brings alive a period in Sicily covering over twenty years. She creates images of where her characters live, what they eat, how they survive day to day and what drives them to make the choices they make at any cost. She does a wonderful job weaving a variety of apparently unrelated stories together, without once making me ask myself, “where is this going?” I was enjoying the journey too much and totally engaged in each of the tales. Scottoline did not let me down, neatly concluding each story that matters.
I really liked this book and can highly recommend it.