“The Orphan of Pitigliano,” by Marina Brown

Reviewed by Donna Meredith 

Marina Brown’s The Orphan of Pitigliano is a feast of Old World mystery and magic, betrayal and heartbreak, sin and redemption.

Readers who enjoyed Helen Wecker’s best-selling novel, The Golem and the Jinni, will like Brown’s tale, which also blends Jewish myth into the historical novel.

Brown paints her stunning story against the blood-stained, war-torn canvas of the Italian countryside during World War II. She aptly describes Pitigliano as a “city that had always been there, from ancient peoples of the East to Etruscans to Romans to the Medieval Medici lords, built on a platform of stone where six or seven story buildings, towers and turrets, fountains and crenelated walls roughly clawed at the sky.” The Tuscan city was known as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution in other places. Its network of caves and tombs filled with Etruscan pottery provides a crucial element in this tale.

Central to Brown’s story are Giuliana, a young Jew escaping the Fascists and Nazis with her family, and Rosetta, the Catholic attempting to lead them to safety. That not all will survive is foreshadowed by Uncle Enrico’s words to Giuliana’s father, who is a professor: “Professors die in thought; soldiers live to think about life.”

When Giuliana is orphaned, Rosetta rescues and hides the girl in plain sight as a farm worker. Rosetta becomes a surrogate grandmother: “A woman who teaches from a distance of years, who can unravel confusions and unlock secrets, who can teach mysteries’ solutions.” And Rosetta has much to teach about the abundance of dark magic that permeates this story world. The evil eye. Etruscan pottery with magical powers. The Jewish myth of the dybbuk.

The darkness held in individual hearts—even within Giuliana’s own family— mirrors the evil taking place across Europe as Hitler’s forces murder millions. Giuliana’s cousin unleashes powerful evil forces whenever she becomes jealous. One of the most intriguing characters is another of Giuliana’s cousins, Simon, a collaborator who has “situational awareness, the ability to choose options when others felt uncertain.” His utter lack of morality and loyalty allows him to survive while others die. He assesses a situation quickly and does whatever is required to advance himself: “Always accommodate to your surroundings, his instinctual mantra told him. If power is admired, project it—understand the moment’s coloration and assume it.” At one point, he becomes a monk, despite believing that religion is no more than “rituals of magical beliefs” or “outright scams.” He believes in himself, in what he can control.

Like so many survivors of the Holocaust, Brown’s characters are separated from loved ones: parents not knowing what became of their children. Brothers and sisters unsure if the other survived. The outcome of these separations heighten suspense. Who lived and who died? Brown tantalizes us with hints in sections of the book set in the 1970s, but all is not revealed until the final pages.

Lyrical prose and poetic touches make Brown’s writing a joy to read. She describes ground fog as “streaks of lavender across the fields, too wet to be lifted by a sleepy sun and sent skyward to make a cloud.” A possessed girl’s eyes appear “as if one looked into an ancient glacier where events were trapped, where latent power lie.” And a father’s voice is “filled with patience that flowed like warm jelly on a holiday latke”—certainly an apt metaphor for a Jewish girl’s observation.

Beneath all the magic contained in the story lie inviolable truths. Giuliana, in contrast to her cousin Simon and her lover Sergio, finds her own moral compass: “Honor, righteousness, the courage to love and to protect what is truly important—the ability to know when you have found it.” Yet she is wise enough—and kind enough—to extend forgiveness to others who betray, who make selfish, hurtful choices. In this story world, remorse is the punishment for sin—but for characters who lack the capacity to feel remorse, look out! That dark magic may well extract a terrible revenge.

This story delivers danger and intrigue, romance and lust, history and fantasy—all wrapped in gorgeous prose that holds you spellbound until the last page.

Brown is the award-winning author of two previous novels, Lizbeth and Land Without Mirrors, as well as two essay collections, Airport Sketches and Walking Alone Together. She also has a poetry chapbook, The Leaf Does Not Believe It Will Fall. She has written extensively for newspapers and magazines over the last twenty years. She resides in Tallahassee, Florida.

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