To the list of epic star-crossed lovers, add the names Gerda and Vito. Like Romeo and Juliet, like Ennis and Jack, the romance at the center of Italian author Francesca Melandri’s novel “Eva Sleeps” (Europa, $18) is ill-fated thanks to politics, geography and family ties. But while other classic tales focus squarely on the lovers, in Melandri’s novel Gerda and Vito are the foundation for a sweeping narrative about the South Tyrol province of Northern Italy: its tumultuous history with southern Italy; the years of infighting for cultural freedom; its citizens’ often futile quest for acceptance.
The novel begins when Gerda’s father, Hermann, is a young boy living in South Tyrol, in what was then part of the Austrian empire. At age 11 The Great War ends, and his homeland at once becomes part of Italy. That same day “his parents died three hours apart, swept away by the Spanish flu.” Thus begins Hermann’s decent into loneliness and homesickness: he marries for power, not for love; he is a silent, distant father to his three children. His oldest, Peter, becomes a revolutionary “whose eyes were so dark they didn’t reflect the light;” Gerda, his youngest, becomes a beauty so great she “caused everyone’s pupils to dilate: men’s from desire, women’s from comparison.”
Melandri explores the trajectory of Gerda’s life — her great beauty, her loves, her losses — against the volatile historical backdrop of life in South Tyrol. Alternating this is the modern-day story of Gerda’s daughter, Eva, a successful independent event planner, who attempts to reconnect with her mother’s great love, the only semblance of a father she ever knew: Vito.
In this rich, multi-generational novel, Melandri maintains just the right balance between love story and historical meditation, making this a narrative to be shared between generations, between men and women, Europeans and Americans alike. In other words, a classic.