The Light in the Ruins

Title: The Light in the Ruins

Author: Chris Bohjalian. He is the author of several books, including Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Readers: Editor Kristina, retiree Nancy, attorney Elizabeth H. and professor Michal.

Summary: 1943: Tucked away in the idyllic hills south of Florence, the Rosatis, an Italian family of noble lineage, believe that the walls of their ancient villa will keep them safe from the war raging across Europe. Eighteen-year-old Cristina spends her days swimming in the pool, playing with her young niece and nephew, and wandering aimlessly amid the estate’s gardens and olive groves. But when two soldiers, a German and an Italian, arrive at the villa asking to see an ancient Etruscan burial site, the Rosatis’ bucolic tranquility is shattered. A young German lieutenant begins to court Cristina, the Nazis descend upon the estate demanding hospitality, and what was once their sanctuary becomes their prison.

1955: Serafina Bettini, an investigator with the Florence police department, has her own demons. A beautiful woman, Serafina carefully hides her scars along with her haunting memories of the war. But when she is assigned to a gruesome new case—a serial killer targeting the Rosatis, murdering the remnants of the family one-by-one in cold blood—Serafina finds herself digging into a past that involves both the victims and her own tragic history.


I’m a big fan of Chris Bohjalian. He grabbed me with Midwives and I’ve been a big fan ever since. The Light in the Ruins is one of his best.

First of all, the title is great just on its own. But as you read the book, it gains even more depth. I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction, but not many that have covered the plight of those who were forced to comply with the Nazis. This books provides a unique perspective from the citizens of Nazi-occupied Italy and how they were forced to choose to go along in order to survive or risk their lives in order to stand for what they believed in.

Sometimes I feel like flashbacks are overdone, but in this book it was perfect. There was enough of a connection between all the characters and the different time periods to make each flashback relevant, but you also aren’t beat over the head with it. The past and the present in the book also carried the murder mystery along really well. I tend to read blindly and go wherever a book takes me, so I didn’t figure the mystery out as quickly as I could have if I’d tried a little harder, but I liked being surprised. It was also interesting to read of the horrors of WWII juxtaposed with a crime that feels a bit more “modern.”

The Light in the Ruins had a great mix of mystery, romance, family saga, and historical fiction. It provides great descriptions of both the Italian countryside and big cities. I think almost every reader would find something in it to spark their attention and keep them reading.

Grade: A



I just finished The Light in the Ruins and as a lover of Chris Bohjalian, this one did not disappoint. The graphic history of WWII in Italy was both disturbing and enlightening. Having just returned from a month in Italy, it was so interesting to hear descriptions of towns and roads I had seen. Combined with the history was a mystery combining the past and present. Not being a very good detective, I never guessed the murderer until the end although a false clue, which I will not reveal, sent me in the wrong direction for the last half of the book. I have become a friend of C.B. on Facebook and whenever I comment on his posts he usually sends back a personal reply. So I recommend if you are a fan to follow him.

Grade: A


Elizabeth H.

The Light in the Ruins is…good. It thrilled, it scared, and it even made me say to my husband at one point, “Oh, I do hope the nice Nazi doesn’t buy it.” (Husband: “There are no nice Nazis.”)

To the extent time-jumping parallel plots can be summarized, the crescendo of Nazi-occupied Italy and sanguinary post-war serial killing converge in the surviving members of a noble Italian family with disastrous results. With less alliteration: someone is running around cutting out hearts of people from the Rosati family and it has something to do with what the Rosatis did in WWII.

The problems with the novel are mainly technical. For example, there are overused phrases used too soon (from one page to the next). Anachronistic terms are used. A red herring character is brought in far too late to create a real distraction.

The main issue is one of construction.

I realize a thriller is very difficult to write from one point of view, or even two, and that’s even more tricky when you’re talking parallel plotlines. I would argue that there is an inverse relationship between a reader’s terror level and the number of POVs used, though, and because Bohjalian plops us into just about every head over the course of a novel, he cuts the level of tension off at the knees. It becomes a game of elimination.

Additionally, while the time jumping isn’t confusing, when you combine it with the head-hopping, it starts to get annoying. Not only are we jumping in time, but we’re jumping bodies, too. I can watch Quantum Leap DVDs for that.

But there are nuanced and strong female characters, who make up for the female characters who are two-dimensional. (For what it’s worth, there are two-dimensional male characters, too.)

Ordinarily I would complain about the POV of the murderer, because it’s rarely done well, but it works here.

It isn’t fair for me to judge a book by whether I can put it down or not, because I almost never put a novel down until it’s done. This was an entertaining book, very evocative, but it was best read all at once, when I didn’t have time to think about the technical issues.

Grade: B



I also am a big fan of Chris Bohjalian and the twists and turns that he employs when you least expect them. I also gave the book to my mom, who is probably an even bigger fan, and she had a similar opinion to mine.

I really enjoyed the two interwoven stories and, like the other readers, was on the look-out for who the murderer was (not a spoiler, since you find out there is one within the first few pages) but was also taken completely by surprise. My mom and I both had a few ideas in mind but were wrong on all accounts. The descriptions of the Italian countryside as well as the history of the artifacts found at the villa was compelling and makes me want to go visit Italy again soon!

I thought that Bohjalian chose a very unique topic by looking into the relationship between fascist Germany and fascist Italy, especially towards the end of the war when tensions were high and diplomatic relationships were breaking down. I wish there had been slightly more insight into the reasons that many of these rich families chose to side with Germany (but that could simply be because I’m a history grad student and this is closely related to my thesis research).

I did think that the beginning was a bit slow and it took a good 50 pages or so to really get into the story but it helped to be reading about unique characters with so many scars, both literally and figuratively. The twist at the end wasn’t as big as in some of his other stories (The Double Bind comes to mind immediately) but I would highly recommend it to not only those who are interested in historical fiction but also those who love making tough decisions vicariously through book characters.

Grade: A-


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