In 1910 in the hills of the bustling port city of Genoa, a disturbing scandal has just hit one of its wealthiest, most prominent families. When lawyer Giuseppe Berilli begins receiving anonymous poison-pen letters, not even a painful back injury stops him from tracking down the sender. But strangely, in this place where everybody knows everyone else's dirty business, nobody seems to be talking.
Giuseppe's suspicions fall on several men from his past who he thinks would see him ruined, given the chance. He shares his thoughts with the police, which leads to the revelation of many unpleasant secrets which he, his family, and his associates had hoped were carefully concealed.
It takes gumption to give these people starring roles – Giuseppe and his elderly sister are both disagreeable snobs – but all of the characters, even the seemingly minor ones, have important tales to contribute as well. Despite her faults, it's hard not to root for Giuseppe's long-suffering wife, Matilda, who had been trapped into marriage because of a presumed indiscretion. The story's emotional center is the star-crossed romance between baker's son Ivano Bo, a talented mandolin player, and Caterina, the Berillis' golden-haired daughter, whose life had been cut tragically short.
The House of Serenades will suit readers who enjoy novels filled with passionate feelings and theatrical twists. To its credit, it has a consistently entertaining plot, and the sad plight of women in that day and age is an ever-present theme. Some historical novels take a nostalgic glance back at the past, but you won't find this here. Instead, it's a colorful, oftentimes heartbreaking look at social conflict, the misfortunes it can engender, and the strength and love required to overcome it.
The House of Serenades appeared from Moonleaf Publishing, a California-based small press, in June 2012 (trade pb, 314pp, $14.99). Lina Simoni's earlier book The Scent of Rosa's Oil (Kensington, 2008) is a romantic historical novel also set in Genoa of 1910, but among the lower classes.