Member Reviews

I love books set in Italy so I was thrilled to receive an ARC for this, but honestly, I can't get through it. There's a lot of beautiful diction, and I loved the writing, but I think it's better suited for someone more enthusiastic about history.

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Gorgeous book. Lush, evocative, poignant.
A sweeping story, with rich embroidery. Loved every page.

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Return to Valetto is a heartfelt historical mystery that follows Hugh Serafino as he works to uncover the secrets of his families past. I enjoyed this novel. The characters were memorable and the WWII connections were very interesting. This story was a bit of an emotional roller coaster. I experienced heartbreak and anger but ultimately joy for Hugh and the Serafino family. I also enjoyed the narration by Eduardo Ballerini.

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Dominic Smith is the author of the historical novel The Last Painting of Sara de Vos which is set in 17th-century Amsterdam, mid-20th-century New York, and modern Sydney. I recommended this book in the episode of my Strong Sense of Place about museums. Smith is very, very good at world-building and characterization. I felt like I was IN that story with those characters. And it packed a nice emotional punch.

With Return to Valetto, he's exploring the light-infused hills of Umbria in Italy. His fictional village of Valetto has been mostly abandoned. During WWII, it was a seat of the resistance against the Nazis, but now only 10 residents remain, including three sisters called the widows Serafino. Their nephew Hugh is a historian, grieving the deaths of his wife and mother. He's written a well-received book about forgotten villages and towns in Italy, and he describes his work by saying, 'I specialize in abandonment.' He returns to Valetto for a stay in the cottage where he spent childhood summers. It's unclear if he's continuing to run from his life or trying to put it back together.

Then the plot thickens. A lady chef from Milan is squatting in his family's cottage, She claims that HER family was promised the villa by Hugh's grandfather. As the two grapple with this issue, dark secrets from the War are revealed.

One of my favorite story tropes is a long-lost relative returning to their native land and uncovering secrets. I listened to the brilliant audiobook and felt like I was transported to Umbria: the food, the light, the Italian language. I loved it and recommended this book in the 23 June episode of my podcast 'The Library of Lost Time.'

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Secrets long held are the catalyst for current day family drama that plays out in the tiny village of Valetto in Italy. Hugh Fisher returns to Valetto, where his deceased mother was born, and where he spent several summers as a young boy. Hoping to get a grip on his life, he’s taken a six-month sabbatical from his U.S. college teaching job to spend time with his grandmother and three aunts who live in the family villa and live in the cottage his mother left him on the family property. But Elisa Tomassi, who says Hugh’s grandfather had gifted her family the cottage is occupying it. The tangled web dates back to World War II and the secrets long held from that time. The storyline worked well, character development well mapped out, and the treatment of how letting go is so challenging - whether it’s pain, fear, grief, anger, or regret. The book has a great sense of place and time. The pace in the first third of the book was a bit slow but it picked up soon after and kept me engaged right to the end. Overall a good read. Many thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this book.

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This is an atmospheric book that is beautifully written. The author just draws you in with the flow and pacing of the words before you realize it is a heartbreaking drama about generational family trauma that resurfaces when two people try to lay claim to a nearly abandoned Italian village, Valetto. One grew up in the village and the other asserts they were given the village by a family patriarch which reveals a horrible secret that has impacted Valetto across generations.

I really enjoyed this one, more than I thought I would. The gorgeous writing, the atmospheric setting and sorting through the secrets, trauma and how ownership of the village played out made this all come together in one wonderful read. The audio was great as well, the narrator did a fantastic job with this one and I am glad I listened to it.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, MacMillan Audio and NetGalley for the copies to review.

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✨ Review ✨ Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith; Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini

"History does not offer us closure. It offers us the inscrutability of the present. It offers us a river of paper, or a digital ocean whorled by so much flotsam."

This historian (that's me!) loved this book about a historian trying to come to terms with the past and present of his family and their hometown Valetto, his grief, and himself. Hugh grew up, spending summers with his Italian family in this very small town on a cliff that's also basically an island, accessible only by a pedestrian bridge. Returning for a six-month sabbatical, he's surprised to find a woman, Elisa Tomassi, has moved into his dead mother's cottage behind a villa where his aging aunts and grandma live.

As the family grapples with Elisa's claim to the cottage, they also have to come to terms with messy parts of their past that have long been hidden -- including the life and death of their patriarch, Aldo (who left during WWII), the partisan children who sheltered at the villa during the war (including Elisa's mom), and traumatic experiences of Hugh's mom and Elisa's mom in the past.

Hugh's area of experience is abandoned (or near abandoned) Italian towns like Valetto. I loved the idea of him becoming a historian by exploring the remains of the homes people left behind after an earthquake in the 1970s. His own research and thinking in this book was really moving in thinking about the power of history and place, family stories and the things we leave behind. I loved how it brought together thinking about places and families as similar. As Hugh and his family are dining in an Etruscan cellar below the villa, he reflects that like Valetto itself, "family histories are porous...and full of seismic gaps." Hugh also reflects on how so much of Valetto is negative space. I loved these ways of thinking about the past and the spaces that surround us.

While this book is definitely slow moving, I found it an absolute delight. The writing was beautiful, and the audio narration was great (though I had to slow it down to slower than I'd normally listen to it.)

Genre: literary fiction
Setting: Valetto, Italy (super small near-abandoned town in Umbria)
Reminds me of: Hello Beautiful for how it's family and character driven
Pub Date: out now!

Read this if you like:
⭕️ character-driven, family drama books
⭕️ very very small town Italy
⭕️ (so much Italian food!)
⭕️ reflections on history and place

Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Macmillan Audio, and #netgalley for advanced copies of this book!

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4 stars out of 5. A beautiful and transportive story, not exactly gripping but wonderfully written and perfect for a beach read or a meditative escape.

Historian Hugh returns to the near-abandoned village of Valetto to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the village's 10 residents. At the party, a new residence arrives, laying claims to one of the towns surviving homes with a tale of the Italian resistance and the cost of war. As the village struggles with this news, Hugh searches for answers, learning about the secrets a tiny town can keep in the complex world of fascist Italy.

These stories should be gripping, however, thanks to Smith's writing style, gruesome tales become beautiful, transportive fairy tales, much like Victor Hugo's passages of the Paris sewer system or the battle of Waterloo. It is a wonderful story and I would encourage giving it a read. However, if you are looking for a story that will beg you to turn its pages, that will race you to the end, I would suggest another story.

Thank you Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for this e-arc in exchange for an honest review.

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Beautifully written with vivid descriptions and well-developed characters. The male lead character, an historian, tells of small Italian towns being deserted as people move to metropolitan areas (which is truly occurring at this time). His grandmother's approaching 100th birthday celebration gives him another good reason to return to Italy, and the small town where his mother grew up, to do some research for an upcoming lecture on the topic. While there, an unexpected visitor prompts him to learn more about his deceased mother's time in Italy and he uncovers some family secrets. Looking at the history of Italy during WWII, crimes gone unpunished, and how the past affects the future, this is a rich look into connections among townspeople and among family members.

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Hugh is a historian and author who returns to his family's ancestral home in Italy. The village was once a thriving center and led the resistance movement in WWII but now contains 10 people, most of which are Hugh's relatives and their employees maintaining ancient villa. Upon his return he is confronted by a local that the cottage he has inherited from his mother was actually gifted away to her on his grandfather’s death bed. The letter bequeathing the cottage reveals what happened to him in the war and begins unraveling other secrets that will rock the little town.

I know that the WWII historical fiction section is packed with stories, and it can feel like you’ve heard everyone. This one was a unique take on the impact of a few small decisions during the war on several families and a whole town. We don’t get war scenes or even too much of the partisan fighters but more the ripple impact on this one family. I really enjoyed the story and the respect for history and family. Professor Hugh was a lovely protagonist to travel through the pages with, he gave us both history and emotion. The writing was also really beautiful and atmospheric, I could easily envision myself in this tiny mountain hamlet as the story played out.

Thanks to Macmillian Audio for gifted access via Netgalley. All opinions above are my own.

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I received both the audiobook and the eARC of Return to Valetto, but I enjoyed the narrator so much that I found myself gravitating towards the audiobook. I don't tend to think about narrators much, but I really enjoyed this performance!

The perfect balance of cozy but with touching on serious topics, of new-to-me topics but with adventure, and of a satisfying ending but not in a way that felt too cliche.

A great read that has the ease of summer but doesn't feel like it's leaning too hard into novelty to get there.

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I really enjoyed Dominic Smith's new book, "Return to Valetto"; it swept me up from the beginning and kept me engrossed straight through to the dramatic end. The novel is set in Valetto, a crumblingly picturesque Italian town where "you turn a corner and see the curled Cs of a dozen sleeping cats in the piazza, the clay-potted geraniums on the edges of stone stairs, the winter rooftop gardens, or the old man in a leather apron walking to the church every hour to ring the bronze bells, and you feel certain that this town of ten will be here forever." Narrator and history professor Hugh Fisher, in fact, specializes in these shrinking Italian towns, and has returned to his deceased mother Hazel's ancestral home on a six-month sabbatical to continue his research and try to move on from his beloved wife's death six years earlier. But intrigue awaits Hugh in Valetto: A mysterious woman, Elisa Tomassi, has installed herself in the stone cottage Hugh's mother had left him, claiming that Hugh's grandfather Aldo Serafino, a partisan sympathizer who went into hiding during World War II and was never heard from again, had gifted it to her family in gratitude for their sanctuary during the war. In trying to unravel the mystery of the cottage's ownership, Hugh discovers a long-buried wartime trauma that scarred both Hazel's life and that of Elisa's mother Alessia. Along the way, he also mediates between his three eccentric and warring aunts as they plan his grandmother's 100th birthday bash, and entertains the unexpected possibility of finding love again.

I inhaled this book over a weekend, but it's worth noting that this isn't just cozy historical fiction--the secret that Hazel and Alessia had kept between them for so many years made me literally gasp aloud as I read it. Readers who are prepared for that, however, will be rewarded with a well plotted and fully realized novel that builds to a memorable climax. I will be gifting many copies of this one to friends and suggesting it for my book group.

Many thanks to Macmillan Audio for providing me with an ARC of the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Eduardo Ballerini.

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I had a really hard time getting into and staying with this book. I think this was a me issue and not an issue with the book or the writing. It did make me want to go to Italy and learn more about what happened there during WWII.

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As the story begins, we meet social historian and academic, Hugh Fisher on his way to his late mother's ancestral home in Valetto a (fictional) crumbling town in Umbria. Hugh, a widower, was bequeathed a cottage on the premises of the family villa by his mother Hazel, where he plans to spend the next six months while on sabbatical from his teaching job at a college in Michigan. Once a thriving town of population three thousand, the post-war years and natural calamities ( such as the earthquake of 1971) resulted in a large-scale exodus of families and at present boasts of a population of ten full-time residents among whom are Hugh’s aunts – the Serafino widows -Violet, Rose, and Iris-and their mother, Hugh’s Nonna Ida who is planning a huge celebration for her hundredth birthday, inviting friends family from all across the world to join in the celebrations.
However, he was informed by his aunts that a northerner by the name of Elissa Tomassi has laid claim to the cottage based on a letter gifting the same to her family written by his maternal grandfather Aldo Serafino. Aldo who was helping the partisan resistance, had left his family to go into hiding in 1944, his fate unknown. It turns out that Elisa’s family has another connection to the Serafino family. Elisa’s mother Alessia was one of the refugees the Serafino family had sheltered during WWII, a part of the family history of which Hugh was unaware. Alessia and Hazel had been friends during that period and Alessia had also been close to Ada. While the family and Elisa try to resolve the conflict over the ownership of the cottage, Hugh and Elise uncover much about the history of the crumbling town, the residents and family history including a betrayal and a particularly traumatic incident that impacted both families across generations. As the narrative progresses it is up to Hugh to decide whether to let go of past injustices or see that those responsible for inflicting pain on his family are finally held accountable.
With a cast of interesting characters, vivid imagery and an engaging narrative, Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith is a beautifully written, captivating novel. The author masterfully weaves the history of a town and its people, the customs, food and culture of the community into a rich and absorbing narrative. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, especially Hugh’s aunts. The romantic relationship track felt a tad forced and wasn’t quite necessary, but this did not detract from my overall experience with this novel. The story is presented from Hugh’s first-person PoV and overall, I did like how the plot is structured. Though the story takes a while to take off (around the twenty percent mark), the story progressed at an even pace thereafter and I found this novel hard to put down. This is my first time reading a novel by this author and I am sure it won’t be my last.
Many thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for the DRC of this novel. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.
I paired my reading with the audio narration by the immensely talented Edoardo Ballerini who does an excellent job transporting the reader to Valetto, making the setting and the story come alive. Many thanks to Macmillan Audio for the ALC.

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I love when books transport me to a different part of the globe, and Return to Valetto painted such a vivid picture of a nearly abandoned Italian village in Umbria. I could clearly envision the long trek to this remote area and the rewarding views among the clouds that a traveler would receive upon their welcome. When family history and secrets are thrown in, it makes for quite the page-turner.

Aside from the decadent setting, I loved the characters. The story focused on Hugh, a historian who *returned to Valetto* to the cottage where he spent his boyhood summers. His three feisty widowed aunts, his grandmother on the cusp of turning 100, and a woman who is laying claim to the ownership of the cottage were all particularly captivating.

I sometimes shy away from World War II-era books because I've read SO many, but this story is mostly told in the present with the occasional reference to the past. It's a great choice when you're in the mood for something absorbing with beautiful writing.

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This audiobook is really fantastic. I love Edoardo Ballerini narrations and I really appreciate his Italian pronunciation. He puts a lot of emotion and his voice is soothing and with the perfect flow. That’s why this audio for me is a five stars narration. From a more technical standpoint the sound is pristine and with a good quality.

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Loved the narrator for this novel. Really brought it to life.
I enjoyed the uniqueness of this novel. In this novel, Dominic Smith, transports us to the Italian countryside with secrets still buried from WWII. The main character, Hugh, returns for his grandmother’s 100th birthday. When someone else is in his cottage, Hugh unravels a dark familial secret dating back to WWII.

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Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith, is a beautiful American-Italian epic with sweeping prose and vividly imagined characters. Arm chair travel at its finest. Even the smallest details like the meals they were eating and how they were prepared made me yearn for Italy (and polenta!).

The audiobook narrator Edoardo Ballerini was especially great with the Italian; also just so many good voices for the characters. I would absolutely listen to another audiobook narrated by him and possibly pick one just based on his attachment!

Thank you @netgalley @macmillanaudio and @FSG for the ALC!

genre: general fiction
swipe for synopsis
pub day: 6/13/23
rating: 4.5/5

Great for: 

armchair travel
White Lotus fans
readers of Amor Towles & Anthony Doerr

will you be reading this one?!

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This book has a beautiful setting. That’s the most interesting thing about it. There are a lot of characters but they are merely spoken about without giving any depth. There is a lot of repetition of a few basic facts about characters without much more being explored about them. It is like visiting a very old relative who has some interesting stories but has forgotten all of the details and sometimes repeats themself because they forgot what they already said. And then they throw in some tangents about trees and bridges. I kept thinking those would come back and be important and I was mostly disappointed.

The writing is beautiful but it is like reading someone’s genealogy book but you don’t actually know any of the people. Even the interesting events are told in a really flat way. I don’t think the narrator helped in any way. Not a lot of emotion in his voice.

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One can never truly go home, you cannot replicate the time, place and all the denizens of a place. Dominic Smith's Return to Valetto finds widowed American historian Hugh Fisher returning to the Italian village of Valetto, where he spent youthful summers. This village's current population is around 10 people, including the surviving Serafino family, Hugh's three aunts and grandmother, who is about to celebrate her hundredth birthday.

Due to centuries of earthquakes, landslides and economic uncertainties, Valetto is one of many Italian villages that have faced steep population decline or all out abandonment. As the novel begins, Hugh is on sabbatical/ a research trip preparing for some guest lectures as he returns, his area of study it Italy focused on the abandoned towns and villages.

What has prompted his arrival is the arrival of Elisa Tomassi and her claim on family property based on the just revealed letter of the former patriarch and resistance fighter Aldo Serafino.

The family and their legal representatives seek to determine the veracity of these claims, as they had never had definitive proof of Aldo's death, just assumed it based on his disappearance and lack of communication.

The book alternates between Hugh exploring the past seeking to find out the truth of the claims about his grandfather, that has only been hinted at previously and the preparations for the grandmothers hundredth birthday. This is going to be a big event, bringing back many who had left the town and other friends and family for a celebration.

Hugh is adrift. While his wife has been dead for sometime, he still lives his day to day life with her memories. His career continues well, but he is beginning to consider his future and how lonely it seems.

Return to Valetto is a work that unpacks the trauma of war and grief of loss and how they shapes those who have survived and how these events have shaped their family. Smith writes well in detailing the setting as well as the complexity of emotions and experience that determine how one lives in and interacts with the world.

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