The Light in the Ruins

by Chris Bohjalian

The violent murder of Francesca Rosati, the former daughter-in-law of a Tuscan marchese, in June 1955 seems to be the tragic end of a life overflowing with tragedies.

Aloof and secretive with her neighbors and dress shop co-workers, she drowned her sorrows in sex with a string of men. She was estranged from her former in-laws, except for her former sister-in-law Christina Rosati.

And it is Christina who finds her, throat slashed, chest spread open, on the living floor of her apartment. Her heart is found in an ashtray on her vanity.

For Serafina Bettini, the only woman police detective in the Florence police department, the case quickly becomes complicated — and personal.  Eleven years earlier, Serafina had been a partisan engaged in guerilla activities near the Rosati family home, Villa Chimera. Hit by an incendiary grenade, Serafina was left scarred and unable to remember the events of that day.

When Francesca’s mother-in-law Beatrice Rosati is murdered and her heart left in a velvet box on the Arno River bridge, it is clear that these are not a random killings; they are a vendetta against the Rosati family.

This complex and intriguing mystery weaves back and forth between the chaotic end of the Nazi occupation of Italy in 1944 and the post-war world of 1955. The story is told in chapters alternating between the war and the investigation with brief inter-chapter statements from the murderer.

As Serafina delves into the past, she discovers that the once wealthy and aristocratic Rosati family walked a knife’s edge trying not to alienate the Nazis to protect their family at the villa; their eldest son Marco, an engineer assigned to mine the beaches of Sicily; and their middle child Vittore, an archeologist working at the Uffizi Gallery.

His work trying to protect Italian art and historical treasures from war damage or being sent to Germany puts him in daily contact with the Nazis and their Italian counterparts. Through him, his 18-year-old sister Christina meets and falls in love with his boss’s adjunct, Friedrich Strekker.

When the Nazis become fascinated by the Etruscan tombs on the Rosati estate, the Rosatis become their reluctant hosts. As Marchese Antonio Rosati said later, “We make compromises. We look the other way. then when it’s over, we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror.” The surrounding villagers see only the Rosatis’ apparent collaboration with the Nazis.

“Those were very messy years,” recalls Roberto Piredda, director of a museum in Arezzo where the valuable items found in the Villa Chimera tombs are held. “By 1944, if the Germans weren’t lining you up against a wall and shooting you for protecting the partisans, the partisans were lining you up against the wall and shooting you for collaborating with the Germans.”

With the Allies advancing northward, the Nazis take over the Villa Chimera, turning it into a bunker and leaving the family only the children’s nursery to live in. During a terrifying night that forces a choice between the bonds of family love or unthinkable alternatives, the Rosatis learn the brutal price of appeasement. One woman’s decision plants the seeds of the family’s destruction 11 years later.

Exciting and suspenseful, this book will keep you guessing until the last pages who the killer is. This well-written story provides a fascinating look at the closing days of the Nazi occupation of Italy, which was experiencing a “civil war within a world war.”

The Author: Chris Bohjalian


The Light in the Ruins (2013) is Chris Bohjalian’s 16th novel. It, like many of his other novels, it focuses “on ordinary people facing extraordinarily difficult situations resulting from unforeseen circumstances, often triggered by other parties.”

The author of 18 novels to date including bestsellers Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls, Chris Bohjalian’s first novel was released in 1988 — A Killing in the Real World.

Before becoming a novelist, he worked as an account representative for the ad agency J. Walter Thompson. He and his wife moved to Lincoln, Vermont, in 1987. There he began writing weekly columns for a local newspaper and magazine about living in the small town of 975 residents.  He has also written for Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

HIs fifth book, Midwives, about a rural Vermont midwife who becomes embroiled in a legal battle after one of her patients dies after an emergency Caesarean section, became a New York Times bestseller and was adapted for a Lifetime Movie Network television film starring Sissy Spacek.

Bohjalian is the son of an Armenian father and a Swedish mother. His Armenian grandparents survived the Armenian Genocide. A graduate of Amherst College, he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

He and his wife, photographer Victoria Blewer, live in Lincoln, Vermont, with their daughter Grace.


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