NOTE: I was given early access to this manuscript in exchange for writing an impartial review. Thank you netgalley.com and Modern Library. Scheduled Publication: September 13, 2022.
THE BETROTHED by Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) (originally title I promessi sposi and first published in 1827), is widely regarded as the seminal and most widely read novel in Italy. (I admit I had not heard of it.) What’s new is that this edition is the first NEW translation of the book in 50 years. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.
According to translator Michael F. Moore, from the book’s forward, his multi-year effort aimed at capturing the original poetry of Manzoni’s prose as well as updating the language to make this classic more accessible to modern readers. And he has skillfully accomplished BOTH!
For most of the book I recognized I was reading a literary masterpiece and expected to easily award it five stars. But, by the end, I couldn’t. Even though I still feel it is a remarkable book.
As the title suggests, the book begins around a scheduled wedding of two simple peasants living in the Lombardy province of Italy in 1628, Renzo and Lucia. What follows however is 704 pages of human errors and obstacles which postpose the event. From a self-absorbed priest determined to save his own skin to a powerful member of the local nobility intent on winning a bet, no matter what the cost for others. Manzoni shows he is as adept at creating the kind of drama out of everyday life that Jane Austen is famous for.
Circumstances force Renzo and Lucia to separate. And as Manzoni follows their stories, he takes readers off on many, MANY tangents, which, taken together, present rich portraits of universal human nature, Italian social and class structure, the dominance of religious practice, and Italy’s notoriously dysfunctional governing bodies. The prose is beautiful and seasoned with lots of humor. The novel is ambitious, nuanced, and truly brilliant. And I cannot think of another historical novel which so graphically and emotionally presents the devastation of both famine and plague.
You will love the multi-dimensional characters Manzoni creates, each so distinctive and realistic that you are likely to recognize people you know. They struggle with human foibles, self-doubts, and questions about faith and God. They survive against intense odds. And like most humans, their indefatigable resilience ultimately wins out allowing them to achieve their goals. A remarkable book, for both Manzoni’s (and Moore’s) language and deep understanding of what makes us human.
So, why couldn’t I award it the expected five stars? First of all, it took me nearly a month to read (a VERY long time for me). And, by the end, THE BETROTHED simply felt TOO LONG. The digressions became too numerous, too long — even tedious– when I just wanted to return to the stories of Lucia and Renzo.
I certainly recommend the book, especially for fans of historical fiction. It’s a rich picture of life in Italy. But understand going in, it may be a longer haul than you expect.