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This month's Blog Book Club selection was The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, considered to be widely underappreciated outside of Italy, where it is considered a real masterpiece of Italian literature. It truly is a great historical novel. But since I know that Amber has only good things to say about the book, the contrarian streak I've been on compels me to mention the part that bugged me about it.
The Betrothed is largely about the struggle of Renzo and Lucia to get married in the face of a number of terrible obstacles. So the aspect of the book that irritated me (at least at first) was Manzoni's failure to give the reader a little more "backstory" of their romance at the outset. Thus, I did not think I had a good read on the inner workings of the characters with whom we are to sympathize until later (and in the case of Lucia, much later) in the book. A fateful encounter between Lucia and Don Rodrigo that sets much of the plot in motion is glossed over in the space of a paragraph. Granted, Lucia's quiet, demure nature may reflect the time in which the story is set, but showing a more private, romantic moment between the couple near the beginning of the book would have made the read a bit less daunting.
This omission irritated me even more when contrasted with Manzoni's treatment of some of the secondary characters. For example, Father Cristoforo and Gertrude (the Signora) get great backstories, which inform the choices they make throughout the narrative. Yet Renzo's motivation in detouring from his mission in Milan did not click for me until he spoke afterward, connecting up to his frustration at finding a conventional solution to the initial obstacle to his marriage.
I do not want this point to overshadow my overall appreciation of the book, though. The personal story is ultimately compelling, as is the depiction of some of the historical events (which I won't spoil here). Plus, Manzoni's eye for the bigger picture has elements of the timeless. Consider, for example, his description of a bread shortage in Milan in the early 17th century:
"But when prices rise more than a certain amount, they always produce a certain effect -- at least they always have done up to the present day. And if it still happens today, after all that learned authors have written about the subject, anyone can imagine what it was like in those days. This effect is a common conviction that it is not in fact the shortage of goods that has caused the high prices. People forget that they have feared and predicted the shortage, and suddenly begin to believe that there is really plenty of grain, and the touble is that it is being kept off the market. Though there are no earthly or heavenly grounds for that belief, it gives food to people's anger and to their hopes. Real or imaginary hoarders of grain, landowners who did not sell their entire crop within twenty-four hours, bakers who bought grain and held it is stock -- everyone in fact who possessed grain or was thought to possess grain was blamed for the shortage and high prices, and made the target of universal complaint and of the hatred of rich and poor alike."
Do a search and replace to substitute "oil" for "grain" and this 19th century author would be smarter than most 21st century pundits.
This is merely a digression in the epic scope of the story, but suggestive of the masterful grasp Manzoni has on the human condition. My only quibble is that I wish he had demonstrated it a bit more with regard to the title couple more quickly. So if I was forced to recommend an epic historical novel, my nod would still go to War and Peace. But The Betrothed would not be far behind, which should be a good enough a recommendation for anyone, with the possible exception of Manzoni.