Monday, February 21, 2005

A Thread of Grace

I finished reading Mary Doria Russell's latest book (A Thread of Grace) this weekend, and I generally enjoyed it. Unlike her first two books, The Sparrow and Children of God, this one is historical fiction. Set in Italy in the later part of World War II, the book gives a fictionalized account of what actually happened -- many ordinary Italians hid Jewish refugees from all over Europe from the Nazis once the Germans had taken over their country. The story is loosely centered around 3-4 people, but weaves its tale from the perspective of many characters (refugees, partisans, German soldiers, a German defector doctor, priests, nuns, regular Italians, Jewish Italians, children) -- with so many diverse viewpoints, it was no surprise to discover that the story was more about the setting than the people, even though the characters were pretty well drawn out.

Russell also continued her religious philosophizing, something she did in her earlier books. The setting lent itself to this activity, and I wouldn't be surprised if her evident interest in the subject is one of the reasons Russell chose this setting for her latest book.

The book had minor flaws -- for example, some of the characters that were introduced had plotlines left unresolved. Warning -- somewhat spoiler material continues for rest of paragraph. The biggest flaw for me, however, was that most of the Jewish refugees (in addition to most of the non-refugees) in the book were killed. No doubt many perished, but if the point was to tell a story of heroism among everyday people that led to success over a powerful enemy, one would think the story would have had a few more people survive to demonstrate that "success." Given the paucity of survivors among the book's characters, one is instead left with a sense of noble albeit largely unsuccessful effort.

Given the quality of Russell's first two books, I had high expectations for this one. I have to say that the way the book finished left those expectations largely unmet. I rate it 7/10.

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