‘It was like a civil war in the midst of the world war,” says a minor character in “The Light in the Ruins.” He is describing Italy in 1943, the tumultuous period that serves as the backdrop for Chris Bohjalian’s newest literary thriller. Italy had lost the war in North Africa in May of that year, retreated from the Allied invasion of Sicily in July, arrested Mussolini later that month, and surrendered to the Allies in early September, only to see the Germans occupy Rome and reinstall Il Duce as the leader of a puppet Nazi regime. From then until the end of World War II, Italy was wracked by conflict, with a large Resistance movement fighting the Nazi occupiers even as other Loyalist Italian armies stayed true to Mussolini and fought alongside the German forces.
It’s in the midst of this chaos that we meet Antonio and Beatrice Rosati, descendants of Italian nobility and landlords of the vast Monte Volta estate. While their sons are off serving their country — Marco as a reluctant engineer in the Italian Army in Sicily, Vittore as an archeologist in Florence trying to keep Italian antiquities safe (and out of Berlin) — the marchese and marchesa carry on their well-fed, relatively undisturbed life. Think of Christopher Plummer in “The Sound of Music,’’ only with olive groves and vast stores of wine. Just swap out the singing sailor-suited children with Marco’s sophisticated and cynical wife, Francesca, her two children, and the Rosati daughter, Cristina, an entitled 18-year-old. Like the Baron von Trapp, Antonio and Beatrice somewhat disdainfully but politely entertain the German officers who visit their home to explore the primitive Etruscan tombs uncovered on their property. And like Liesl von Trapp, Cristina falls in love with a handsome German soldier.