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Shelf Awareness: "The devastating story of a young Jewish professor who marries into a Catholic family during Mussolini's rise in Italy, told with subtlety and quiet beauty."

Date: Sep 1 2009

from Shelf Awareness

"Never reveal you are Jewish." That's all, just one small favor. The father of the bride asks to speak with Dino alone, man-to-man, and young professor Carpi can't refuse. He's hopelessly in love with Sonia. He's just the son of a hotelkeeper, and she comes from the wealthy, prestigious Gentile family, but she loves him back, and for her love he would agree to anything. Sure, he can keep quiet about his religion. It's never been very important to him anyway.

When his best friend Ruben finds out about the favor, he's furious. It's a question of self-respect, Ruben tries to hammer into Dino's head. But is it? Fascism is on the rise in 1930s Italy, Mussolini is charming everyone, and more and more Jewish rights and privileges are being lost every day. Pretending to be Catholic doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

This prize-winning novel by Lea Levi, newly translated into English by Antony Shugaar in a gorgeous paperback edition from Europa, is a heartbreaking little tragedy that sums up the whole genocidal horror in miniature, telling its truths simply in the life of one man, who as though in a fairy tale, becomes caught up in a wealthy family with three lovely sisters. It's Gilead meets The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Author Lia Levi convincingly crosses the gender line writing as an old man, a literature professor who needs to confess to someone (you don't learn whom until the last 40 pages) what happened 30 years before in 1938, when Italy was in the grip of Fascism and his Jewish religion, always so half-hearted and perfunctory, suddenly became a one-way ticket to hell.

Levi knows exactly how to slowly tighten the screws. We watch as Professor Carpi is no longer allowed to enter the high school where he has taught for 20 years. His marriage into a prestigious Catholic family occurs just as mixed marriages are declared illegal. Worst of all, there's the question of his son, Michele. The boy is only six, the love of his father's life, but because his father is a Jew, little Michele won't be allowed to go to the best schools. Unless something is done.

Told as an honest man's confession, with a blunt candor in the language and a quiet urgency of tone, Levi's novel builds subtly until it's quietly devastating. Yet it's such a clean, solid story and so well written, the sadness is endurable and the beauty is luminous.

Shelf Talker: The devastating story of a young Jewish professor who marries into a Catholic family during Mussolini's rise in Italy, told with subtlety and quiet beauty.

--Nick DiMartino