Review: The Garden of Angels by David Hewson

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The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

When a Jewish classmate is attacked by bullies, Nico just watches – earning him a week’s suspension and a typed, yellowing manuscript from his frail Nonno Paolo. A history lesson, his grandfather says. A secret he must keep from his father. A tale of blood and madness . . .

Nico is transported back to the Venice of 1943, an occupied city seething under its Nazi overlords, and to the defining moment of his grandfather’s life: when Paolo’s support for a murdered Jewish woman brings him into the sights of the city’s underground resistance. Hooked and unsettled, Nico can’t stop reading – but he soon wonders if he ever knew his beloved grandfather at all.

Source: NetGalley, Severn House Publishers, and Purchase Rating: 5 stars

I have spent a great deal of time reading this summer and I believe this is the first five-star read I have come across.  This one was certainly worth the wait!

Written in a past meets present format, The Garden of Angels follows the lives of grandfather and grandson, Paolo and Nico Uccello.  Nico has spent his entire life with his grandfather by his side and now, at the end of his beloved grandfather’s life, Nico finds Paolo may not be the man Nico has known and loved.  With strict orders to share his secrets with no one, Paolo sets Nico on a journey through history that deeply alters everything Nico has ever known and believed about the Uccello family. 

With just over fifty years separating the past and the present, Nico is astounded to read the words written by his grandfather.  Though the place is the same, the times are vastly different.  Nico’s home, Venice is “run” by Mussolini and Hitler’s henchmen occupy the city.  Though Paolo is only 18 years old at the time, he is virtually alone thanks to one of Hitler’s bombs.  With only a loyal family friend to help him, Paolo finds himself adrift in a world he can’t possibly navigate.

With a business to keep afloat and a home he rambles around in alone, young Paolo clings to the things that remain.  Life in Venice under Nazi occupation is often a deadly affair and Paolo would do well to keep his down, complete the commissions he has, and cause no trouble.  Unfortunately, trouble finds Paolo in the form of a brother and sister on the run from Hitler’s men.  Though Paolo has never imagined himself a hero, he can’t see not helping these two souls. 

As events begin to unfold all around him, Paolo discovers many truths about himself and the world around him.  The war has changed everyone, and Paolo is no exception.  Living life beyond the war is not something most can imagine and many in Paolo’s city won’t outlive the war to see a better tomorrow.  Death surrounds Paolo at all times and helping, even in his own small way is more than enough to see him killed along with the other undesirables. 

As Nico reads his grandfather’s account of life during the last days of World War II, he begins to his home and his family from a very different perspective.  Though Paolo never meant for Nico to have to grow up so quickly, life is often too short, and time is of the essence.  With his newfound knowledge, Nico must now decide who he is and how he is going to process the rest of his life moving forward.  With a weighty history behind him, life has become far more challenging than he ever expected. 

The Bottom Line:  What a wonderful generational story this turned out to be.  As always, I enjoyed the chapters from the past the most as they so clearly informed the people of the present.  With that said, my absolute favorite part of the book was the last few chapters the delved into the years between Nico reading about the past and working out his own life with that knowledge following him.  The last several chapters serve as a sort of extended epilogue, and I really enjoyed the expanded information about Nico and his life.  For me, these last chapters really brought the entire book together into a most satisfactory conclusion.  Finally, The Garden of Angels really checks all the boxes for me: historical fiction, the Holocaust (even in only tangentially here), generational/family saga, and past meets present.

Goodreads | Amazon | Paperback

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