“The Madonna of the Mountains” by Elise Valmorbida

Genre:           Historical FictionMaddonna of the Mountains
Publisher:     Random House
Pub. Date:     June 12, 2018

Whenever I give a book a five-star review, that means, for me, it is an incredible read.  I admit that when a book is on a subject I enjoy or something that I can relate to, I usually add in an extra star.  After all, this reviewer is only human.   In this book, I strongly identify with the characters’ culture.  Still, this does not take away from the vivid imagery in the superior writing.  You will feel as though you are inside the pages and everything is personally touching you.  The novel is filled with the feel of Italy, its food, its way of life and its picturesque wonders.   As well as the ugly underbelly of peasant living; the author, Elise Valmorbida, explores the moral questions on the uneven balance of power between the sexes in Italian life.

The novel derives much of its weight from its setting: War in Italy during the 1920s to the 1950s.  The main female protagonist is the epitome of an unsentimental woman doing whatever it takes to keep her family alive during hardship in unstable times.  She and her husband have lived through and survived WWI.  Now they must do it again, with four children, during WWII.  As the reader knows, at the beginning of the war, Benito Mussolini chose to ally Italy’s forces with those of Adolf Hitler.  Soon German and Italian armies were battling Allied troops on several fronts.  Italian civilians suffered on many levels. Their homes were bombed, their food sources cut off.  Then, one month after Italy surrendered to Allied forces; it declared war on Nazi Germany.   And, the Italian people were further bombed and starved and still suffering. “War is hell.” ― General William T. Sherman.

“Madonna” focuses on the female character’s role.  Women seemed the most burnt out by life because they were the most abused.  The enemy, whoever they might be at the moment, was beating and raping the females.  Their own husbands were often no better, especially in peasant life where it is the norm for men to beat their wives and children, and have affairs.  Think the movie “Zorba The Greek,” not an Italian film but so similar in the scene where the village peasants stone to death a woman who was unfaithful to her husband.   If you think this casual acceptance of violence against women can be attributed to the period, think again.  According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.”   I actually found myself comparing our Italian mother to Tina Turner and her husband Ike.  Ike once told the newspapers in 1985. “Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.”  I have read much fiction and nonfiction on violence against women, this novel explains it so well.  The reader will observe how mothers taught their daughters that they must be subservient to men.  And if they are not, they will be physically punished.  Here is another movie for you, “Divorce Italian Style.”  The film is a comedy that still screams of a patriarchal society where it is expected that husbands and fathers hit.

All in all, as a reviewer, I appreciate that the author did not portray the mother in a romantic sense.  What she did was show wartime horrors and the abuse the women endured in an epic novel.   The author’s characters are so real and so gut-wrenching that I was not surprised to learn about the possibility that this is autobiographical.  I applaud Valmorbida for such an honest description of Italy’s wonders and shames.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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