The Name of the Rose

Illustration of Apocalypse is front dust jacket image
14th century view of apocalypse

The Name of the Rose, one of the world’s all-time best-selling novels, is a fascinating Italian novel that most American readers will set aside before they finish chapter one.

The 14th century setting in which author Umberto Eco sets his tale is half the novel’s story.

In 1327, Italy was part of the Holy Roman Empire beset by religious and political turmoil. Two competing emperors had recently been elected; the real winner will be the one the Pope chooses.

The Pope has his own problems: People are increasingly vocal about the church’s immense wealth and power.

The Pope’s picked men are scheduled to arrive soon for a theological disputation—a debate to establish truth— at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy where a monk has died under suspicious circumstances.

The abbot has summoned Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar to investigate. Brother William brings young Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice, to assist him.

For a week, there’s a bizarre death a day for the pair to solve.

Eco adheres to the familiar hero and sidekick pattern, but the setting, culture, and passages in Latin will turn off American readers who lack the background and the curiosity to read demanding European fiction.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Translator: William Weaver
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ©1983. 502 p.
1983 bestseller #7. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Lure of the Mask doesn’t last

The Lure of the Mask is a novel composed entirely of characters.

Readers must take them as Harold MacGrath drew them; their fascination never makes them believable people.

Lady in fancy evening dress lowers her mask and looks over her shoulder toward the reader.


The Lure of the Mask by Harold MacGrath
Illus. Harrison Fisher and Karl Anderson.
Bobbs-Merrill, 1908, 1908 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg ebook #22158. My grade: B-.

Italian-born American John Hillard hears a woman singing in classical Italian at 1 a.m. in January. He’s so charmed that he places an ad in The Times asking her to contact him.

She responds. They correspond. The woman refuses to reveal any personal details.

Finally she agrees to meet.

Hillard is blindfolded, brought to a home that seems familiar.

The lady is masked.

Hillard knows no more about her afterward than before.

Unable to locate the woman with whom he is infatuated, Hillard agrees to take his friend Dan Merrihew to Italy, where both can recover from the loss of their loves—or find them again.

They are accompanied by Giovanni, Hillard’s servant, who hopes his 7-year absence will have lessened the interest of the police in arresting him so he can finish the murder he botched earlier.

MacGrath’s complicated story is well-plotted and remains unresolved until the last page.

The Lure will catch and hold you for an entire evening.

You’ll be released untouched at bedtime.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Vittoria’s secret: a million bottles of wine

After I finished The Secret of Santa Vittoria, I couldn’t help thinking that I must have seen the film version and not remembered it.

Robert Crichton’s novel, however, is not soon forgotten.


The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton

Simon and Schuster, 1966, 447 pp. 1966 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.


1966-03_santavittoria_200With Mussolini’s death, the remote mountain town of Santa Vittoria expects to be plundered by the German army before being liberated by the Allies.

Santa Vittoria has only one asset: its wine.

Bombolini, the clownish wine merchant and student of Machiavelli, steps up to save the day.

Bombolini becomes Mayor by giving away free wine.

But his real genius is in organizing the entire town to hide a million bottles of wine within an arm’s length of the Germans.

Determined to prove he and his seven German soldiers can subdue an entire town without bloodshed, Captain von Prum swallows Bombolini’s bait every time.

Though a thousand people know the secret, no one tells, not even under torture by the SS.

The result is a story that swings like a bloody pendulum from farce to horror.

The funny parts are almost vaudevillian.

The horrifying parts are nauseating.

And all of The Secret of Santa Vittoria is so ridiculously, stupidly human that the novel seems perfectly plausible.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My Friend Prospero Sweet and Light as Spun Sugar

Seeking admittance to a remote Italian castle containing a famous collection of fourteenth century portraits, Lady Blanchemain is delighted to discover the courtly Englishman who serves as her guide is a relative of her late husband. A centuries-old feud between the Catholic and Protestant branches of the family had kept them from meeting before.

The landscape is so romantic and John Blanchemain such a Prince Charming, Lady Blanchemain decides she must arrange for him to fall in love.

She doesn’t have to.

Long before John spies a woman pretty as a princess in the courtyard below, ten-and-a-half-year-old Annunziata is on the job taking care of her friend Prospero, whose impecunious present state she predicts will give way to incredible fortune.

The outcome of the romance is totally predictable.

Henry Harland takes the portraits the lovers straight from color illustrations in fairy tales. He gives them each a sense of humor and delight in word play so they are interesting to watch for the short time it takes to read Harland’s slim volume.

Unfortunately, Harland doesn’t give enough lines to Lady Blanchemain, “a young old thing” who is more interesting than either of the young lovers.

Despite its shortcomings, My Friend Prospero is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

My Friend Prospero
By Henry Harland
1904 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #14682
My grade: C+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Bell for Adano still rings true for occupying armies

Bell tower of monastery at La Verna, Italy

When the American army kicks the fascists and their German allies out of Italy, Major Joppolo is assigned to restore order in Adano. He is supposed to see that there is food, water, sanitation and an appreciation for freedom and democracy.

He also has to keep his own troops in line.

The locals say the most important thing Joppolo can do is to replace the 700-year-old bell the fascists melted down to make gun barrels.

Joppolo vows to find Adano another bell.

He is beginning to get the town running again when General Marvin’s jeep is blocked by a mule cart as he passes through Adano.

The General orders the mule shot and all carts prohibited in Adano. Without the carts, Adano has no way to get water.

Joppolo countermands the General’s order.

John Hersey tells his tale with humor and gentle irony. The outcome of the story is predictable. The characters are predictable, too, by virtue of being very ordinary sorts of people.

We need men like Joppolo in our occupying armies, Hersey says, “to guarantee the behavior of men under pressure.”

Abu Grabe and Haditha testify that we still need to be reminded of that.

A Bell for Adano
By John Hersey
Alfred A. Knopf, 1944
269 pages
1944 bestseller #9
My Grade: B

Photo credit:  The old monastery uploaded by Mattox

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Readers are only winners at Battle of the Villa Fiorita

Dustjacked of the Battle of the Villa FioritaRumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is one of the few novels with a surprise ending that  feels right.

Away at boarding school, the Clavering children know nothing of their parents’ divorce until it’s settled. By then, their mother has gone to Italy with her lover.

Hugh and Carrie, devastated by their mother’s desertion, set out to bring her home from the Lake Garda villa where she and Rob are honeymooning while waiting to marry.

Glad as she is to see the children, Fanny is not about to go back to London.

Rob, who isn’t glad to see the children, summons his  own daughter to join them at the villa.

The only thing the three children have in common is dislike of the “other parent.”

As the children fight to restore their normal families, Rob and Fanny fight over how much parents owe to their children. Should the children always come first?

The point of view shifts frequently in the early chapters, reflecting the distress of the characters. As they become more sure of themselves, Godden steadies her perspective and picks up the pace. The story is streaking along when it slams to a close.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is a fight you won’t soon forget.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
By Rumer Godden
Viking Press, 1963
312 pages
1963 bestseller #10
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Saracen Blade is dull and dumb

Frank Yerby’s speciality is novels about men and women who rise from poverty to wealth, fame, and marital bliss through their brilliance, loyalty, and sexual prowess.

Yerby sets The Saracen Blade in the 13th century. Pietro di Donati, a blacksmith’s son, is born on the same day and in same town as the baby who will become Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire.

In that era, the aristocracy ruled by violence, usually having become aristocrats by violence. Though slightly built, inclined to intellectual rather than physical pursuits, Pietro becomes part of the violent world in which kingdoms clash, religions compete, and the poor suffer the consequences.

Pietro seeks his fortune in the only way boys of his era know: attaching himself to powerful knight and hoping to rise with him. For 30 years, he trudges around Europe, North Africa, and Asia as squire, knight, Crusader and trader. He pauses occasionally to admire the women and to retch when someone other than himself inflicts mayhem.

When Pietro finally gets back home, his childhood sweetheart is waiting. By that time, I was ready to retch.

I recommend reading the appendix. Yerby’s notes are better than his novel.

The Saracen Blade
Frank Yerby
Dial Press (book club edition), 1952
1952 Bestseller #9
295 pages + notes
My grade: C
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Daughter of Silence is not golden

Daughter of Silence opens with Anna Albertini shooting the mayor of San Stefano to death at noon before turning herself in to police.

There’s no doubt Anna is guilty of murder. The only question is whether mitigating circumstances should be considered in her sentencing.

In a plot reminiscent of Robert L. Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, Morris L. West follows Anna’s defense team as they probe for soft spots in the law.

Carlo Rienzi is the handsome defense attorney hoping to make his name with the case, Peter Landon the equally handsome forensic psychiatrist hoping to boost his career with the case.

The courtroom drama is offset by bedroom drama in the small San Stefano community. Carlo is jealous of his unfaithful wife. Both Carlo and Valeria resent her father, in whose law firm Carlo works. Ascolini is a great man to his law students, a nasty piece of work to his family.

Landon, meanwhile, has fallen for artist Ninette Lachaise who once had an affair with Valeria’s current lover.

The novel’s ending is predictable. The characters, while fascinating, are people you’d just as soon forget.

The real mystery in Daughter of Silence is why somebody didn’t murder all the characters: it wasn’t for lack of motive.

Daughter of Silence
By Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1961
275 pages
1961 bestseller # 8
My Grade: B-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Agony and the Ecstasy tilts toward agony

Irving Stone’s hefty 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy : a Novel of Michelangelo starts off  with the 13-year-old Michelangelo signing on as apprentice to the leading artist in Florence. In a stunning reversal of normal practice, Michelangelo gets the artist to pay him for the privilege. It’s the most financially astute deal he ever pulls off . Once Michelangelo gets his hands on marble, he forgets all about money for the joy of sculpting.

Stone takes readers on a trip through Renaissance Italy as seen by Michelangelo, whose acquaintances included political leaders like the Medici, popes, writers, the best artists of he day, and a host of other 16th century celebrities.

Stone did extensive research for the novel, as the lengthy bibliography shows. Unfortunately, he tries to put everything he learned into the novel.

Stone packs so much detail into his narrative that nothing stands out.  Stone notes when the artist changes his clothes and what he wears to visit the Pope, but the man himself seems less alive than his statues.

Readers need a thorough grounding in Renaissance history to appreciate the novel, and  then they are likely to find reading it a tough job.

The Agony and the Ecstasy:  A Novel of Michelangelo
by Irving Stone
Doubleday, 1961
648 pages
1961 bestseller #1
My grade: C-

©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Exile Is Worth Bringing Home Again

To relieve her widowed mother’s financial burden and escape England’s gray drizzle, Miss “Billy” Brown goes to Tindaro. Her lack of Italian is no handicap for her job at Julia Lord’s English library and tea shop.

Before long, even Tindaro’s misfit exile community are shocked when novelist Oscar Slade decides to add the lovely and innocent Billy to his conquests through marriage. His jealous housekeeper prevents the marriage by murdering Slade before drowning herself.

Billy, who knew nothing of Slade’s reputation, hardens herself against her loss. She turns her energies to business, helping transform Julia’s modest operation into a thriving service agency.

Thomas Isherwood. an architect gassed in the war, has come to Italy to repair the damage to his lungs. In her professional capacity, Billy helps Isherwood locate and furnish a villa. In her unprofessional capacity, Billy helps him repair the damage to his emotions and softens her own in the process.

In outline, this plot sounds trite, but the novel has depth and perception.

Warwick Deeping’s keen eye for character and detail raise Exile above the pedestrian, subtly revealing the far-reaching consequences of youthful choices. His portrait of her mother’s relationship with Billy is a gem, but it’s only one of the nuanced portraits that make Deeping’s readers feel they are making discoveries about real people.

Exile
By Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1930
330 pages
1930 bestseller #2
My grade B+

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni