“I know some things,” he said. “In Urbino, some things we all know.”
“So tell me.”
Later she would regret those words, and she’d realize how difficult it was to recognize the moment before something was destroyed. She could remember the beginning of her father’s Alzheimer’s, but not the last time she’d seen him normal. All the cranky small moments that had led to the end of her relationship with Ivan were recorded indelibly, but she had never woken in their railroad apartment and considered that she was beginning the last good day. And just the same, she said those words now blithely, easily, completely unaware that what Gianfranco had to tell her was the start of a loss.
Natalie Danford’s Inheritance reminds me of how much I loved my trip to Italy six years ago this month. Truth be told, my memories of it are at this point random details and vague impressions, and I doubt that at this point the scrapbook I started afterwards will ever be finished. It is, however, the only foreign country I’ve visited and I came away with a new-found love for it.
The book is a double story. After her father dies of Alzheimer’s, Olivia finds amid his belongings an old iron key and the deed to a house in Italy. Though he spoke Italian with her, he never mentioned his native country or the family he left behind when he migrated to the States at the end of the war. As a way of healing from her father’s death, and her own failed relationship, Olivia decides to visit his hometown of Urbino. It is a small town, boasting only a ducal palace and the birthplace of Raphael, catering to tourists in an effort to survive. Because of her father’s history and estrangement, Olivia feels simultaneously a resident and outsider. She finds a warm welcome but no answers from her cousin Claudia; the young lawyer who agrees to look into the deed may be able to provide her with both. The truth, however, may not be what Olivia is looking for.
Inheritance alternates between Olivia’s current visit and various parts of Luigi’s life. In the wrong hands it could be trite or overdone, but because we meet Luigi first he is a well-rounded character for us. The reader must piece together elements from Luigi’s own story, Olivia’s memories, and what she now learns. Can we know the exact truth? According to one character, “history is written by the survivors,” and the bare facts of any event might be open to numerous interpretations depending on factors like motive and circumstance.
There is a scene about halfway through the book with Luigi and Olivia’s cat that I found very disturbing and unnecessary as I read. Upon later reflection, however, I realized that it showed us the contradiction between different versions of an event, the breach between intention and outcome, and the thoughts and actions Luigi is capable of. In a sense, it presents many of the story’s themes in a microcosm. The result could have been achieved differently, but I appreciate Ms. Danford’s subtlety.
She carries this light touch throughout the book, so that readers don’t feel a heavy-handed Moral of the Story. Instead I was left pondering the cracks and filters through which we view any history, whether large-scale or our own. At the same time, Ms. Danford skillfully weaves the threads of the “truth” of why Luigi left Urbino, leaving the reader guessing until the end. Olivia braves the Pandora’s box of knowing her father as a real person, with faults and flaws. In some ways this can be a good thing; my grandmother died when I was thirteen, and I feel I know more about her as a person now that I did when she was still alive, by going through all the things I have from her. On the other hand, I’m sure there are things about my parents that I would rather not know. Would I love them any less? Certainly not. Even knowing the truth can help you love a person all the more.
As much as I adore mysteries and suspense, the literature geek in me really enjoys a book with themes and thinking. Inheritance was such a book for me. It would get my recommendation even without the evocative Italian setting.