February Read of the Month: “Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel,” by James Markert

James Markert

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Lush, mystical, and complex, Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel by Kentucky author James Markert is a stunning book. It begins with a foundling child abandoned at an orphanage in Florence, Italy, 1866, and ends on a California cliff in modern times—but oh what a journey the author takes his readers on in the intervening pages. Filled with mythology, captivating characters, poignancy, and richly layered, meshing stories, the magical realism in Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel requires a giant leap of faith into a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, but the rewards are well worth it.

The plot lines are too complex to summarize in a short review, and they operate on different levels—and in different times and different realms. On one level, what is perhaps the dominant plot concerns Vitto, a young soldier returning home after hard combat in WWII. He finds a son who doesn’t remember him; his wife Valerie, whose initial joy turns to fear of him; and his father Robert, whose bigger-than-life personality has been reduced to childlike dependency due to dementia.

Vitto suffers greatly from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and is particularly haunted by what he experienced as one of the first American soldiers to liberate a concentration camp. In the grips of a particularly brutal flashback, Vitto nearly chokes his wife, Valerie—his childhood sweetheart whom he loves and adores completely. After that, Vitto takes himself to a veteran’s hospital, where he meets John, another shell-shocked veteran. Their abiding friendship, mutual support, and aid become some of the sweeter, endearing parts of the book.

Vitto and John soon leave the hospital to chase after Robert, Vitto’s father, when he runs away from Valerie’s care. Vitto, John, and Valerie find Robert has returned to the Tuscany Hotel, an elegant though now abandoned resort in California that Robert and his late wife, Magdalena, had built as a retreat for artists, musicians and actors. Closed during the Great Depression, the hotel is in decline. Noting the dramatic improvement in Robert, the family decides to reopen the hotel, but instead of artistic and creative people, their guests will be older people like Robert who are suffering from dementia. As it turns out, Robert’s memory returns after drinking the magic waters of the hotel’s fountain. Soon the hotel is filled with people seeking the magical waters—but the restoration of their memories comes at a high cost.

Against the backdrop of Vitto and Robert’s own stories, Magdalena’s tale is told in flashbacks, memories of her told by others as they talk, and from her journals. Despite this indirect structure of her story, she remains a forceful, even dominating, part of the book. Born with bright hair—described as orange and flame-like—she grows up to be a famed beauty. But she cannot remember things due to some strange memory disorder. Each day is new to her. To operate in a life without memory, she takes to writing details in her journals.

Even as Magdalena’s lack of memory mars her life, Robert’s own defect mars his. He is an artist, a sculptor, who is color-blind and forced to turn from painting to sculpture, where the absence of color does not weaken his talents. Yet when Magdalena and Robert meet, he sees the vibrant color of her hair. Though she must write in her journal to remember Robert, each day she falls in love with him again. Gradually Robert sees more colors and Magdalena recovers her memory, at least in part. Their journey together—like Vitto and Valerie’s—seems fated from earlier times and linked to the Renaissance and to ancient mythology.

Not only is the plot compelling, the writing itself is lovely and moves the narrative forward at a quick pace through timelines and different realms of being. Sentences flow, often in a kind of poetry: “At night the ocean breeze picked up sound as if it had hands and threw it into the open windows.” One character is described as “the embodiment of a hug,” and Magdalena and Robert’s love is “a puzzle of two, connected,…the two for whom love was invented, …seamless as an eggshell.”

With its theme of reincarnation, mythology and magic, Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel seems at first blush an odd choice for publisher Thomas Nelson, the Christian publishing arm of HarperCollins. Yet the book fits well within the publisher’s commitment “to acquiring, developing and promoting authors whose content inspires, informs, and transforms the lives of readers.” Within its intriguing, endlessly complex plot, themes of love, respect and caring bring this book well within that criteria. And Robert himself states the overriding message of the book, “That in all things God may be glorified.”

Click here to purchase this book:

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: