I stumbled upon this a while back in one of the bookstore's bargain bins but since it concerned a time period I'm usually interested in, I figured I'd give it a shot. It was only $3.99 after all. Given that I hadn't heard anything about it, I wasn't expecting much, and I know that sometimes people have a tendency to set their novels in World War II because it's one of those topics that adds immediate gravitas. This one was set in Italy, an area I haven't read too many war novels on, though A Thread of Grace is absolutely amazing and wonderful and sad. This novel, on the other hand? Well, I am sure that Wurtele is a great person, she seems nice from the novel and all, but I really, really didn't like this book. About half way through I actually thought to myself, "why am I still reading this crap? I should quit. Giovanna's an idiot and I hate her, and this is so unrealistic." Now, I admit I don't finish every book I ever start but usually I don't actually contemplate quitting them. It's more that I decide maybe I should take a break and read something else or alternate between a book I'm struggling with and something else, and then somehow don't make it back to the original book until I just admit that I'm no longer reading it. I actively thought about putting this down and never picking it back up.
The main problem is the narrator and main character, Giovanna. While early in the book, Giovanna tries to convince the reader that she is brave and courageous because of that one time she carried a hawk, at no point do her actions in 1943-45 ever make her seem any of those things. Instead she comes off as spoiled, self-centered, stupid, unrealistic, dumb and flighty. Now some of those things could be okay in a main character, especially since Wurtele uses Giovanna as a character that had no idea of what was truly going on with the Germans, and discovers more about the dark side of the Fascist regimes as the novel progreses. So even though she was annoyingly naive, that could have been okay because the novel shows her growing up. The same could be said about spoiled - it would be okay for her to be spoiled and slightly self-centered if the novel truly charted her becoming aware of the world around her and growing up from there. I believe it attempts to do that, but not very convincingly since all of Giovanna's "war work" seems over exaggerated by her, hence making her sound whiny and spoiled even when she's "helping" everyone. The biggest problem is that this girl is dumb.
Giovanna is a seventeen year old in Nazi occupied Italy, and around the same time she both starts helping the nuns teach the local children and assisting her brother who is in the resistance. The nuns' school is partially occupied by German soldiers and since there are no young Italian men around, Giovanna starts feeling some attraction for a married German officer. The Soldier's Wife did an interesting and pleasant job of exploring a woman's attraction to the occupiers, though not entirely memorable. This novel did not. Basically, Klaus is hot and Giovanna is horny. But you know, youthful stupidity, I'll let it pass. However, why the hell Giorgio would ask for Giovanna's help in anything is beyond me. She's basically incompetent. I mean, yes, she finds food to help supply the partisans but it basically involves her asking half the characters in the novel, and climbing into vegetable gardens. Why, oh why, Giorgio would you ask an indiscreete teen to help you find food? Not only does she tell half the people she knows what she is doing, but some of the others figure it out because she's just so covert. I just kept wanting to ask her if she knew the meaning of the word "secret."
Anyway, as the description of the novel reveals, later in the novel she will end up helping a Jewish man named Marco that her brother brings to her. Once again, I couldn't get beyond her stupidity. She tells more people than she should that she's helping a Jew, and now she's not only revealing her secrets, but those of other people, such as when she tells her best friend that the nuns are helping her shelter him. Dumbass, you do realize there are such things as collaborators? And that even if they aren't collaborators, they could still be tortured for information if anything ever happens? It is at this point that she whines about how busy she is, what with stealing food from vegetable gardens, and helping at the clinic (she is in charge of the supply closet - she got banned from the school after the nuns discovered her little dalliance and had to find something else to do) and hiding Marco (someone else is hiding him, you're just visiting because you're still a horny teen).
There's also this whole plot about her parents don't understand her and treat her like a child. For example, she is very upset when her father makes a joke about her fainting after she tells him she's going to work at the clinic because he just constantly underestimates her. Guess what she did exactly two hours earlier in the book at the clinic? Fainted at the sight of blood! Given her sheltered upbringing, Giovanna has managed to avoid noticing what's been going on with the Jews but after meeting Marco, she becomes aware. After that, there are about 20 pages of her asking everyone she knows if they knew about what was happening with the Jews - obvious much? This is also when she decides that it is now her mission to help the Jews ...
I will say that the novel picked up in the last 80-100 pages, but that's mostly because Giovanna somehow mellowed out a bit and went from being intolerably annoying to eyerollingly annoying. I think it may have also helped that there were some journal entries from Marco's perspective which actually made me want to yell at him because he was putting down exact names of everyone helping him - I just kept thinking, "don't use names, if you are discovered, you are incriminating other people." So basically, the novel went from annoying to bland for the last 100 pages but not enough to justify this novel or turn it around for me.
In other words, I don't recommend this novel, and even the Italy setting couldn't save it. I didn't have high expectations but apparently even those were aiming too high.